In the dugout, Ivan Melendez claimed that he got jammed on the pitch, all thanks to some late tailing action into his hands.
The designated hitter for the No. 4 Texas Longhorns had just hit a home run for the third straight game, this time an opposite-field blast that kept on carrying over the wall in right-center field, evidence of the El Paso product’s raw, natural power.
The three-run shot in the fourth inning nearly completed the scoring for the Longhorns in a 9-1 victory over the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks on Wednesday evening at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, with eight of those runs scored by Texas coming with two outs.
“It’s such a tribute to our offensive coaches and Tulo and Coach Miller and the commitment that they have to our players and our players backed each other up, just grinding out at bats and never giving up the ending or never giving up the bat,” Texas head coach David Pierce said.
For a fifth straight game, Melendez was the major storyline, going 2-for-3 at the plate to continue a tear that has seen him rack up 14 hits in his last 21 at bats (.667).
As Melendez transitioned this year from playing at Odessa College, platooning at first base and designated hitter, Pierce made a fateful decision before the Kansas series in Lawrence last weekend— he told Melendez that he was going to play all three games at designated hitter.
Against Oklahoma the weekend before, Melendez had made some small adjustments at the plate, raising his hands slightly and shortening his base to see the baseball better, but the biggest recent adjustment was mental. Instead of walking to the plate with uncertainty, as he had at times earlier in the season, Melendez started focusing on his breathing and trusting the work he’s put in.
It’s paid off handsomely for a player whose only Division I offer out of high school in El Paso was to New Mexico State. Melendez opted for the junior college route instead and after landing in Odessa as a two-way player, his coach asked him to give up pitching to focus on his hitting. Melendez finished the 2019 season, his freshman year, hitting .411 with 17 home runs and 70 RBI.
Thanks to a recommendation from former Texas player Omar Quintanilla, who moved back to El Paso after his playing career was over, the Longhorns took a chance on Melendez even though the staff had some concerns about his play translating from the junior college level, especially with his power numbers coming in the light air of West Texas.
But the first time that Pierce and the Texas coaches saw Melendez take batting practice, they knew that demonstrating that power at a higher level of competition would simply be a matter of timing.
It hasn’t taken long for Melendez to find it.
“He’s very strong and he’s very confident right now,” Pierce said.
One aspect of the raw power from Melendez that makes him special as a hitter is his ability to barrel up off-speed pitches.
“He’s doing a really nice job of leaning on some breaking balls and getting extension through — there are a lot of guys who don’t have the ability to do that because their hands are committed to the initial movement of their swing,” Pierce said. “And so I think the ability to manipulate the barrel, or have great barrel awareness, also puts him in a good spot.”
The power of Melendez is impressive by itself, but the overall approach from the Texas hitters is equally noteworthy, as all three home runs by the Longhorns on Wednesday went to the opposite field, evidence of their ability to stay back on breaking balls with a gap-to-gap approach.
Receiving his seventh start of the season, left-hander Pete Hansen went a career-high 6.0 innings and 82 pitches, leaving the game without allowing an earned run on two hits with three strikeouts and three walks. Pierce thought Hansen could have pitched longer if the defense hadn’t committed two errors. The velocity still hasn’t returned for Hansen, but he’s continued to pitch well with a 1.19 ERA and also has room for improvement outside of his fastball once again topping 90 miles per hour.
“He’s gonna get better and I think that the next step is him finishing at bats when he gets guys 1-2, 0-2,” Pierce said. “I think that’s a big step for him — making a pitch and not trying to press there.”
Despite the defensive mistakes on Wednesday, Hansen still has the ability to confidently pitch to contact thanks to the typically strong fielding behind him, especially shortstop Trey Faltine, who made multiple plays during the midweek games that showed his unique combination of talent, hard work, and awareness.
Against SFA, it was bailing Hansen out of a bases-loaded jam by ranging deep into the hole, then sliding and throwing in one motion to get the runner at third.
“I think he’s done a great job of being a sponge, but you can’t just do that and be a sponge — you have to have an athletic mind,” Pierce said of Faltine. “You have to have the ability to anticipate and I think he’s doing a nice job of that. He works hard, he puts the time in to make those types of plays, and he’s always in the right spot, always looking for those types of plays, and I think that’s critical.”
Faltine is still trying to get his bat going — his .235 batting average ranks second to last among the regular starters — but he’s found ways to get on the base paths with a .382 on-base percentage thanks to 19 walks and five hit by pitches, allowing him to lead the team in runs with 29 on the season.
The continued upside for Faltine at the plate is just another indication of how this Texas team, even though it sits at 22-8 on the season — with 22 wins in the last 27 games — still has some potential left to tap into.
The next opportunity to do so comes this weekend at home against Kansas State. Friday’s matchup is particularly enticing, featuring Texas right-hander Ty Madden (4-1, 1.52 ERA) against Kansas State left-hander Jordan Wicks (4-2, 3.40 ERA), both of whom are considered first-round draft picks. First pitch is at 6:30 p.m Central on Longhorn Network.