So much for desperation time.
With an NCAA Tournament bid effectively beyond reach, a trip to Lawrence to face the Kansas Jayhawks became about pride and securing the last spot in the Big 12 Tournament. Instead, Friday night’s 4-2 loss for the Texas Longhorns at Hoglund Ballpark was more of the same.
For the eighth time in 12 conference losses, Texas blew a lead in the eighth or ninth inning, with four of those defeats coming in the final frame. Like the Friday loss last week against West Virginia in Austin, it was senior right-hander Matteo Bocchi on the mound for the ninth inning following an excellent outing from sophomore starter Bryce Elder, who allowed only one run in 7.1 innings. Elder didn’t have his best stuff, striking out five and walking four over that stretch, but once again gave the Longhorns a chance to win the game.
Despite pitching well all season until moving into the closer role, Bocchi has struggled to keep opponents in the ballpark, allowing the go-ahead home run against the Mountaineers last week and two against the Jayhawks on Friday, including the walk-off effort with a runner on base.
In 31 innings this season, those are the only three home runs allowed by Bocchi, who lowered his arm slot this season to get more movement on his pitches. It’s largely worked, but as the Texas slide has intensified, Bocchi hasn’t fooled opposing hitters, who haven’t missed their opportunities.
As usual, the Longhorns bats were largely silent, too, as head coach David Pierce’s team managed only four hits, with only one from the top six hitters in the lineup.
In the third inning, Texas manufactured a run with a hit by pitch and sacrifice bunt before junior center fielder Duke Ellis singled in a 10-pitch at bat after fouling off four consecutive pitches.
The Horns took the lead with a similar approach in the ninth, as sophomore designated hitter Zach Zubia blooped a single into right field. Pierce pinch ran for Zubia with sophomore Kamron Fields, then moved him over with a sacrifice bunt. A single up the middle by freshman second baseman Lance Ford barely left the infield, but the speed of Fields and his aggressiveness on the base paths allowed him to score ahead of a strong throw from the Kansas shortstop.
Unfortunately, the bullpen couldn’t close it out once again.
With the loss, Texas sits in last place with a 6-12 conference record with one weekend series remaining following the weeklong break for finals next week and two games remaining against an opponent that is now .500 at home. Entering the game, Kansas ranked No. 91 in RPI, but that overall futility might not mean anything for a Texas program that continues to blow late leads and find ways to lose.