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Texas will have to overcome biggest weakness against Mississippi State

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The Bulldogs strike out opponents at an incredible rate. The Longhorns struggle with strikeouts. Can Texas put the ball in play enough on Sunday?

Cam Williams
Texas baseball

For the Texas Longhorns to fulfill the high expectations facing the team in the College World Series, winning Sunday’s opening game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs is a crucial first step.

Not only would a victory against the Bulldogs represent revenge for the Longhorns after the season-opening loss in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown, it would also represent Texas overcoming its biggest weakness this season — striking out frequently.

To start the season in Arlington, Texas struck out 48 times over three games and now sits at 516 strikeouts in 2021. Three players have over 60 strikeouts individually, including the heart of the order in first baseman Zach Zubia and designated hitter Ivan Melendez. In the five hole, third baseman Cam Williams has 49 strikeouts, a number he’s kept down in part because he’s a switch hitter who can avoid unfavorable matchups.

Those issues play into a team strength for Mississippi State — the Bulldogs staff leads the nation in strikeouts per nine innings at 12.4, totaling 744 on the season, second only to the Rebels of Ole Miss. Of those 744 strikeouts, 18 of them came in the opener against Texas, including 10 by right-handed reliever Landon Sims.

On Sunday, the Longhorns will face right-hander Will Bednar (7-1, 3.53 ERA), who, like Texas right-hander Ty Madden, is a likely first-round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft. Bednar wasn’t available for the first matchup between the two teams, but he’s been difficult to hit with 113 strikeouts in 74.0 innings compared to 67 hits and 20 walks. In Bednar’s 16 starts this season, he’s only allowed more than two walks in two of them. So he doesn’t beat himself on the mound.

“I think the key for us is we’ve got to be good against the team that strikes out a lot of people,” Pierce said. “When you look at Mississippi State, they have struck out 744 hitters this year... So, they have swing-and-miss stuff — for us, we’ve got to put some pressure on the other teams by utilizing our speed and putting the ball in play.”

Bednar’s WHIP of 1.18 will unquestionably make that difficult, raising questions about what type of adjustments Texas has made since beating South Florida last Sunday. Players like center fielder Mike Antico, designated hitter Ivan Melendez, and left fielder Eric Kennedy have all made effective adjustments at different times this season.

For Kennedy, it’s been about starting his swing earlier when he’s looking for fastballs like he did on the first-pitch, walk-off double in the first game of the Austin Super Regional against South Florida. Kennedy trusts his hand-eye contact, but when he wasn’t on time, his swing was breaking down.

That approach could pay off against Bednar’s fastball, which can touch 96 miles per hour, but generally sits between 91 and 94. While there is occasionally some arm-side run on the fastball, what makes it particularly dangerous is that Bednar likes work up in the strike zone with it. Texas hitters would be wise to force the umpire to call high strikes rather than offering at Bednar’s heaters at the numbers or above.

Bednar’s most dangerous secondary pitch is his late-breaking slider in the low to mid 80s, often a devastating pitch to right-handed batters. It’s not as effective against left-handed batters, who are more likely to see his changeup, a pitch that Bednar typically struggles to command.

So if Bednar’s fastball-slider combination is working against the right-handed Texas batters, it could put more pressure on hitters like Kennedy, Williams, and center fielder Mike Antico to either catch up to Bednar’s fastball or take advantage if Bednar hangs a changeup or two.

Bednar has allowed 11 home runs this season, second most on the Mississippi State. When he gets into trouble, it’s a result of hanging off-speed pitches — whether he can control those pitches often becomes apparent early in an outing.

Even when Bednar struggles giving up home runs — he’s allowed two in three starts this season — he still gets strikeouts, punching out 31 batters in those starts. So even a best-case scenario for the Longhorns likely includes a significant number of strikeouts by Bednar.

“Our intent is to go out and totally focus on ourselves and our team and what we do well, understand the percentages, understand what they could potentially give us as a defense to our offense and try to attack those areas,” Pierce said. “I think the same thing with our pitching and defense versus their offense — so, it’s not even about that opening weekend. It’s just one of eight teams here that’s going to play really well and have done a great job all year and then finished really well against a very good Notre Dame team. So, there’s not a team that’s coming to Omaha that’s not confident.”

Madden will take the mound for Texas on Sunday for first pitch at 6 p.m Central on ESPN2.