The recent surge for center fielder Mike Antico continued on Sunday with a 3-for-4 performance as the No. 3 Texas Longhorns only needed seven innings to dispatch the Abilene Christian Wildcats in a run-rule, 11-1 victory at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.
Over the three-game series, Texas outscored Abilene Christian 32-2, marking the third straight series sweep for the Longhorns.
Sunday’s win completed the 10-game homestand for Texas and pushed the current winning streak to 13 games as the Longhorns prepare for a road trip to San Marcos on Tuesday to face Texas Texas State and Stillwater over the weekend to face No. 24 Oklahoma State.
After only managing three runs during Saturday’s win over Abilene Christian, Texas returned to recent form offensively, drawing seven walks and cranking out 14 hits, including two home runs, two triples, and a double while also stealing three bases.
In the last 10 days, Antico’s bat has come on for Texas as the St. John’s transfer has raised his batting average from .202 to a season-high .250. Sunday came close to matching Antico’s best performance in burnt orange and white — a 4-for-5 game with five RBI against Kansas State on April 9 — as his sixth-inning at bat afforded him a chance to hit for the cycle.
Antico’s approach in that situation mirrored the entire team’s approach over the winning streak — though Antico admitted that he was conscious of the rare opportunity, he didn’t go to the plate trying to hit a double, allowing him to accept a six-pitch walk.
In the previous inning, he’d blasted a three-run home run to left field, his fifth of the season.
Antico’s big day at the plate provided further justification for head coach David Pierce’s decision to keep Antico in the lineup even though he spent the first two months of the season struggling at the plate.
“My thought process was, I expect a lot out of myself. I came here to do as good as I can, but when you’re not playing to your full potential, it’s tough,” Antico said. “As far as my spot, as you guys have seen, coach has stuck with me, so I was never really worried about losing the spot or whatever, I just had to show up every day and put in the work and trust that the rest will take care of itself.”
Although Antico arrived at Texas with a .332 career batting average over four seasons, the start of his Longhorns career wasn’t the first time he’s struggled for a long stretch — through almost six weeks to begin the 2019 season, Antico was hitting .186.
Then the switch flipped during a doubleheader against Hofstra in late March when Antico went 4-for-4 with three RBI, sparking a steady climb in his batting average that never relented for the rest of the season. He finished the year hitting .386.
Another hitter coming on in the month of April for Texas is first baseman Zach Zubia, whose own batting average has jumped from .257 at the end of the Oklahoma series in late March to .314 following his 2-for-3 performance on Sunday. Zubia has commanded the strike zone well with 16 walks over the last 10 games, but there’s a corollary to his ability to force pitchers to put the ball in favorable locations for him — he’s allowed the ball to travel and taken a gap-to-gap approach with his swing. On Sunday, it paid off once again with an opposite-field home run in the fifth inning.
When Zubia first arrived at Texas, Pierce didn’t trust him to play first base, but over the last three years, Zubia has improved tremendously defensively, including by losing weight to improve his mobility. So it wasn’t a surprise to see him turn a difficult 3-6-1 double play in a key situation with runners on first and second with no outs in the fifth inning — it was simply a testament to all of his hard work.
The double play wasn’t the only time that right-hander Kolby Kubichek escaped a jam.
After recording two quick outs in the fourth inning, Kubichek hit a batter, walked the next batter on a full count thanks to three straight pitches outside the strike zone, and had to pitch around a tough scoring decision for third baseman Cam Williams, who was charged with an error while trying to field a ground ball and beat the runner to third. Kubichek got out of the inning with a swinging strikeout.
Kubichek unquestionably competed well over his 5.0 innings of work, allowing one run on five hits with two strikeouts and two walks. He just wasn’t sharp with his command, losing the quality sink on his fastball by leaving it up in the zone too often.
“I think Kolby has to get sharper for sure, but he finds a way to continue making pitches when he needs to,” Pierce said. “We’ve got to quit living on the edge, but at the same time, we’ll take the W and move on.”
Even in the shortened game, there was another positive development out of the bullpen with junior college transfer Drew Shifflet throwing a second straight strong outing from his lowered arm angle, inducing three groundouts in his inning of work after a perfect inning on Friday that included a strikeout.
“I’ve had guys that didn’t really contribute early in the year and became a big part of postseason play for us and so that’s what you want to do is just continuing to work on your craft and see if you can get innings and build confidence and help the team,” Pierce said of his bullpen.
For the Texas head coach, the current winning streak and the way that the team is playing has challenged him to be better, but he’s still found time to enjoy himself, too.
“It’s just an adrenaline rush right now. You don’t want to leave anything out, you want to make sure that you’re there for them, you want to make sure that that you’re giving them everything you have, because they’re doing the same thing and it’s a very unique situation right now,” Pierce said.
“I said at the beginning of the year that this team is different and also said I had no idea how many games we’re gonna win, but every single day if we continue to do what we’re doing, I like our chances. And I’m having a blast.”
Texas returns to action on Tuesday in San Marcos at 6 p.m. Central.