As the spring weather in Austin heats up, so have the No. 4 Texas Longhorns, winners of eight straight games after sweeping the Kansas State Wildcats at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, capped by a 9-2 win on Sunday. The Longhorns have now swept two consecutive conference series and sit at 10-2 in Big 12 play.
The hottest player on one of the hottest teams in the country remains designated hitter Ivan Melendez. In the fourth inning, Melendez reached out for a 94 mile-per-hour fastball on the outside corner — hardly a bad pitch, except for the fact it was elevated and it was to Melendez — and accomplished the rare feat of hitting it over the recently-raised batter’s eye in center field, his sixth consecutive game with a home run.
Melendez wasn’t finished, though — in the sixth inning, the 6’3, 225-pound slugger got a hanging breaking ball over the middle of the plate and sent it on top of the scoreboard in left-center field. Yes, that’s correct. On top of the scoreboard.
For commentators, baseball is a game of long pauses, opportunities to let the game breathe and moments linger. After the second home run by Melendez, however, 66-year-old Keith Moreland, the former Texas standout and 12-year Big Leaguer who has won a World Series and called games for the Chicago Cubs, was simply out of words.
“Unexplainable,” Moreland said.
The 2-for-3 performance with two home runs and four RBI capped, at least until Tuesday, an incredible stretch for Melendez — truly one of the most remarkable for a hitter in school history.
The last time that Texas lost, a rivalry game against Texas A&M in College Station 12 days ago, Melendez was not in the lineup, sitting in favor of Mike Antico at designated hitter and Dylan Campbell in left field. When the Longhorns traveled to Lawrence that weekend, head coach David Pierce, in an effort to help Melendez gain confidence, told the El Paso product that he would play all three games.
At the time, Melendez was hitting .263 with a single home debut in his Texas debut against Missisippi State in Arlington. His prodigious power, the tool that landed him an offer from the Horns out of Odessa College, was merely potential in the context of his brief career in burnt orange and white.
In the opener against the Jayhawks, Melendez went 1-for-3 with a strikeout, but then he started to heat up. During the Saturday game, Melendez had two doubles among his four hits in five at bats, a day that raised his average by 41 points. On Sunday, the streak began with his second career home run at Texas as part of a 3-for-5 performance that included a double.
Since Pierce gave Melendez that vote of confidence, the designated hitter is 18-for-31 (.581) with seven home runs, five doubles, and 18 RBI. How long Melendez can continue his power surge may end up more a function of whether opposing pitchers are willing to throw anything near the strike zone to him, currently an extremely poor proposition.
For the long-term outlook of this Texas team, another important development is Antico starting to swing the bat better. In the third inning, the graduate transfer from St. John’s hit his second home run in as many days and ended the Kansas State series with seven hits, raising his batting average from .202 to .239.
A third straight quality start after lasting only 3.1 innings against Baylor to open conference play was a major positive for right-hander Kolby Kubichek as well — the redshirt sophomore had his sinker working in going 7.0 innings with two runs allowed, one earned, scattering seven hits and striking out five while inducing 13 groundouts.
Left-hander Pete Hansen, the midweek starter, and right-hander Aaron Nixon each pitched an inning and combined to strike out four of the seven batters they faced.
The long homestand continues with two midweek games against Nevada, starting on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network. The Wolfpack are 9-13 overall with a 6-10 record on the road.