Following the longest break of the season and a 9-0 victory over the Incarnate Word Cardinals on Tuesday, the Texas Longhorns start the final regular season series of the 2019 campaign on Thursday evening against the Oklahoma Sooners.
Still stuck in last place in the Big 12 standings, Texas is no longer in contention for an at-large NCAA tournament bid and faces a difficult road to the Big 12 Championship — the Longhorns need to sweep the Sooners or win two of three games and get a sweep by the Jayhawks over the Wildcats in Lawrence.
Avenging the March loss against the Cardinals was a good start for the Horns and there is reason to believe that the team was able to improve during the 11 days since the last conference game. After all, practice time is limited during the college baseball season and head coach David Pierce’s team used that same break last year as a springboard to the College World Series.
The biggest challenge posed by Oklahoma is its pitching staff, which boasts a 3.68 ERA and 444 strikeouts on the season. That’s no real surprise, as Oklahoma head coach Skip Johnson, who is now in his second season leading the Sooners, spent 10 seasons as the pitching coach for the Longhorns under legendary head coach Augie Garrido. During his time in Austin, Johnson had 32 pitchers selected in the MLB Draft, including 14 in the first 10 rounds and three in the first round.
Thursday starter Nathan Wiles, a junior right-hander, might be the most vulnerable of the starters — he doesn’t strike out a lot of batters and he’s given up 31 extra-base hits, including 14 home runs. However, he does command the strike zone with only 14 walks in 82.2 innings. The bigger concern is the Friday starter, sophomore left-hander Levi Prater, who has a lower ERA, doesn’t give up as many extra-base hits or even hits in general, and has 90 strikeouts in 73.2 innings.
The closer, Texas A&M transfer Jason Ruffcorn, has 10 saves on the season thanks to opponents hitting only .227 against him.
At the plate, however, the Sooners aren’t particularly intimidating, hitting .264 as a team with only 23 home runs, 20 fewer than the Oklahoma staff has allowed to opponents. Sophomore infielder Tyler Hardman is the only Sooners player hitting over .300 this season.
Based on the lack of offensive firepower for both teams, expect this series to come down to execution — limiting walks on the mound, avoiding errors, getting sacrifice bunts down when necessary, and producing with runners in scoring position.
Look for Pierce to approach this series as he would the postseason, too, by using his starters if necessary to secure wins, as a Texas loss on Thursday combined with a Kansas State win would eliminate the Longhorns from the Big 12 Championship.
First pitch on Thursday is at 6:30 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network and 104.9 The Horn. With inclement weather forecast for Saturday, the two teams will now play a double header on Friday: