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No. 1 Texas baseball enters season with high expectations

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The Longhorns fell just short of reaching the College World Series finals last year, but return a strong core bolstered by transfer depth and some young talent.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Mississippi State v Texas Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns baseball program enters the 2022 season ranked No. 1 in all three major polls and facing high expectations in head coach David Pierce’s sixth season after finishing 50-17 last year and coming up just short of reaching the College World Series finals due to a walk-off loss to the eventual champions, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Three of the four players who hit 10-plus home runs last year are gone — center fielder Mike Antico, first baseman Zach Zubia, and third baseman Cam Williams — as well as Friday starter Ty Madden and setup man Cole Quintanilla, but there’s also plenty of talent returning, bolstered by several strategic transfer additions and a handful of talented freshmen.

The weekend rotation should be among the best in the country and Ivan Melendez moves from designated hitter to first base as he anchors a lineup that won’t feature as much power, but has plenty of returning starters and added Kansas transfer Skyler Messinger at third base.

With a strong defense up the middle to help out the pitching staff, the expectations for Texas are the highest they’ve been for years — as difficult as it is to get to Omaha, the goal this year is to get there and to win it all for the first time since 2005.

“I think there’s a little excitement in the locker room. We’re definitely hungry from last year. Obviously, we returned a lot of guys, so everyone kind of knows the taste of getting that close and not getting there. I think everyone wants to get back there and really go all the way this time,” Friday starter Pete Hansen told the Austin American-Statesman.

“Obviously for us, expectations are really high, but it’s really nothing new to us just because that’s the level that we put ourselves at. Every day with our work and how we approach that stuff, we put that pressure on ourselves. It’s not even pressure so much, it’s just kind of what we we know we’re capable of, so for us, it’s really nothing new and that’s just kind of how we operate.”

Pierce views the program’s expectations through the prism of where Texas was when he arrived in 2016 to replace the legendary Augie Garrido — the Longhorns were coming off a 24-31 season.

“The vision has been to recruit and to develop and to get to this point,” Pierce said in an appearance on the On Second Thought podcast. “There was never any wavering from that. And so when we talk about process with a player, the day-to-day process versus the result, we’ve been going through that for the last five and a half years of the process to get to this point. So there’s no more expectations that anybody can tell us about what we need to do or how we should be doing things. We’ve gone through it and now you get pretty close to the pinnacle.”

Now Pierce wants his coaches and players to keep working to get one percent better in every area, play one game at a time, and respond to the inevitable adversity that will come at some point this season.

“We’ve got to figure out who we are as a team,” Hansen said. “I think as the season goes on, we’ll understand that a little bit more. We don’t really put pressure on ourselves with that. We try to establish our culture from an early stage and that’s just working hard and competing, but we’re really not going to know who we are until we face a lot of adversity. Right now, things are good, but once things start speeding up on us, that’s when we’ll really find out who we are.”


Outfield

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Texas v Virginia Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

After Madden’s departure, the biggest loss for Texas is arguably Antico, who brought power and speed to the leadoff position — he had 16 doubles, 10 home runs, and 41 stolen bases, leading to 69 runs scored by the St. John’s transfer.

Replacing Antico’s impact on the bases will be a team effort, led by center fielder Douglas Hodo III, who moves over from right field to replace Antico, and left fielder Eric Kennedy. Those two players combined for 24 stolen bases last season, a number that needs to increase this year. To facilitate those opportunities, both players need to improve their on-base percentage by taking more walks and Kennedy needs to bounce back from hitting .253 last year while struggling in the batter’s box for long stretches.

In right field, Austin Todd returns for a sixth season following shoulder surgery after hitting .292 through six games in 2021 and .375 in 17 games before the 2020 season was cut short by the pandemic.

If Todd struggles or the left-handed Kennedy needs to platoon, Dylan Campbell appears poised for a breakout season after struggling as a freshman, hitting only .189. But the former three-sport standout in high school had a strong summer and fall, then took Friday starter Pete Hansen deep in the alumni game as Pierce works with him on hitting the ball up the middle more consistently. An infielder by trade in high school, Campbell is now more comfortable in the outfield and could be the team’s starting designated hitter with his improvements at the plate.

“He’s kind of the guy that kind of got some games last year, had some good ABs, but really didn’t get that time,” Hansen said. “I don’t know if he deserved it last year, but he definitely was capable, we just had such a talented team. He had a great summer and then he had a fantastic fall and it’s kind of at the point where you can’t keep him out the lineup. He’s got the hot bat right now.”


Infield

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Texas v Virginia Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Melendez returns to prove to scouts that he can maintain his production from last season and has a glove that can play in the field. The El Paso native hit .319 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs in an impressive debut season on the Forty Acres, but also struck out 65 times and was pitched around late in the year, in addition to being hit by 10 pitches. He’ll need protection in the lineup to see hittable pitches and more of the patience at the plate that allowed him to draw 34 walks last season.

At first base, Pierce believes that Melendez has all the tools to be a good defender.

“Athletically, his hands work, he can pick it, his foot speed is plenty good to play first base, and he’s got a good arm,” the Texas head coach said.

The challenge for Melendez is proving he can make the right decisions, like when to go for a ground ball to his right, what his coverages are, and how to align himself before the pitch.

Up the middle, the double-play combination of second baseman Mitchell Daly and shortstop Trey Faltine is one of the best in college baseball.

Daly burst onto the scene as a 59-game starter as a freshman, earning All-Big 12 first team honors by finishing second on the team with a .316 batting average and tied for second with 66 hits. With a mature approach at the, Daly reached base in 54 of the 59 games he started and added value on the base paths, finishing third on the team with eight steals. Because of that advanced approach at the plate, Pierce may ask him to protect Melendez in the four spot.

On most teams, Daly is good enough to play shortstop. At Texas, he’s a second baseman with a plus arm and a steady glove who had a .964 fielding percentage last season and contributed to 38 double plays.

At shortstop, Faltine is one of the most electric defensive players in college baseball, but Pierce was quick to point out how much he’s improved since arriving at Texas in 2020 as a raw athlete used to playing across the diamond. Faltine came to the Forty Acres without an understanding of how to throw on the run, how to change arm angles, how to throw across his body, or the necessary footwork on the pivot at second base.

Faltine’s work with former Major League standout Troy Tulowitzki, the volunteer assistant for the Longhorns, helped the 6’2, 198-pounder take advantage of his athleticism and turn his raw skills into a refined, fundamental package. In 2021, Faltine fielded .968, led the Big 12 with 203 assists, and turned 40 double plays.

“He’s very, very competitive, he has a lot of pride, and because of those two things is the reason why he’s where he is right now,” Pierce said. “He’s the face of that defense. He’s the captain. He’s verbal. He’s demanding, and I love that about him. You need that in the middle of your field.”

Despite hitting .259 last season, Faltine was still able to produce at the plate, driving in 37 runs and finishing third on the team with 51 runs scored and flashing some raw power with five home runs and 18 doubles. But Faltine also struck out 72 times, a full third of his plate appearances, and while Pierce didn’t mention any changes to his swing, he did say that he believes Faltine can improve through better pitch selection and plate discipline.

The likely starter replacing Williams at third base is Kansas transfer Skyler Messinger, who Pierce believes was the best player for the Jayhawks over the last three years. Pierce praised Messinger’s glove, aided by a strong first step in the field, and believes he has some untapped power at the plate he’ll show off at Texas thanks to a change in his swing plane. Messinger hit .324 last season at Kansas with 69 hits and 19 doubles, but only has six career home runs, a number he could potentially match this season with the tweak to his swing.

“I think the key for him same with Antico last year — he’s coming from a program into a big environment. So don’t make it bigger than it is. Just go out there and play. Don’t put pressure on yourself.”

Antico struggled until the Kansas State series in early April got him going at the plate, raising his batting average almost 30 points in two games. By the end of the season, Antico was hitting .273, more than 70 points higher than his average entering the series against the Wildcats.

The jump in competition from Kansas to Texas isn’t as steep as it was for Antico coming from St. John’s, but if Messinger does struggle, Murphy Stehly is a starting-caliber player entering his third year with the Longhorns after hitting .294 in 29 games with 12 starts last season.

Texas also added Vanderbilt transfer infielder Jack O’Dowd, a top-100 prospect in the 2021 recruiting class who adds depth at second base, shortstop, and third base. Talented freshman Gavin Kash is the likely back up for Melendez at first base and could receive some starts at designated hitter.


Catcher

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Mississippi State v Texas Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Silas Ardoin returns for his second season as a full-time starter after starting in 53 of his 60 appearances in 2021 without committing an error. Ardoin also caught 20 of the 48 attempted base stealers last season and contributed at the plate with 33 RBI and 30 runs scored.

“He’s just a stud behind the plate,” Hansen said. “Knowing that he’s back there, he’s going to block every single ball and throw everyone out, it’s definitely a weight off my shoulders that I can go there and execute pitches and do what I need to do, and that goes the same with our whole infield, too.”

The NCAA transfer portal helped Texas add some depth at catch, landing Texas A&M’s Kimble Schuessler, who only appeared in three games for the Aggies, but was an excellent hitter in high school at Llano, batting .400 as a senior and .470 as a junior.


Starting rotation

NCAA Baseball: Big 12 Conference Baseball Championship Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Traditionally, the Longhorns have featured a big right-handed pitcher with dominant stuff on Friday, a mold that Madden fit last year. To start out the 2022 season, Pierce is turning to left-hander Pete Hansen, who decidedly does not fit that mold.

Hansen was a freshman All-American last season with a 9-1 record and a 1.88 ERA in 91 innings pitched, striking out 80 batters to only 23 walks and holding opponents to a .201 batting average against. But he also began the season in the weekday rotation after not pitching much in the fall and a preseason bout of COVID impacted his velocity while his release point moved higher and towards his head, altering the shape of his pitches.

By the end of the year, Hansen was the Sunday starter and pitching at a high level. This year, Hansen has gained 10 pounds of muscle and enters the season in a much better spot physically and mechanically with his velocity ticking up once again.

The Californian starts in the Friday role in part because of his ability to eat up innings to preserve the bullpen, a similar quality possessed by right-hander Tristan Stevens, back for a sixth season of college baseball with a chip on his shoulder after going undrafted. A power sinkerballer with an ability to pitch to contact, Stevens was 11-3 last year, winning seven straight starts between March 13 and April 24, and finished with a 3.31 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 111.1 innings pitched.

Sophomore Tanner Witt, the Sunday starter, fits the traditional profile of a Friday starter for Texas better than Hansen and Stevens, but Pierce doesn’t yet feel confident in his ability to pitch deep in games, in part because Witt served as a middle reliever last season and in part because he tends to get deeper into counts than Hansen and Stevens. A physical 6’5, 215-pounder, Witt was 5-0 last season with 73 strikeouts in 57.0 innings pitched.

Multiple pitchers may receive opportunities during the week, including freshman left-hander Ace Whitehead, freshman right-hander Josh Stewart, and sophomore left-hander Lucas Gordon.

Stewart is known for a fastball that reaches into the mid-90s with a high spin rate and an effective changeup. He was inconsistent at times as a senior, hurting his draft stock, but could also serve as a middle reliever on the weekend. The goal with Stewart is to put him in positions to succeed early in the season to build his confidence and ease his transition to college baseball.

Gordon was effective in 19 appearances with one start in 2021, posting a 3.32 ERA and one save in 21.2 innings pitched with 19 strikeouts.


Relief pitchers

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Texas v Virginia Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

With Witt moving into the rotation and Quintanilla now playing professional baseball, Texas has two important holes to fill as Pierce tries to get the ball to sophomore closer Aaron Nixon.

A freshman All-American last year, Nixon totaled nine saves in 27 appearances, holding opponents to a .211 batting average against and striking out 35 batters in 34.0 innings. Nicknamed Quadzilla, Nixon is known for his bulldog mentality on the mound and should be one of the nation’s better closers.

The Longhorns have plenty of options to fill the setup roles with plenty of buzz surrounding redshirt freshman right-hander Travis Sthele.

“He missed last year because of elbow surgery and now he’s going to come back and eat up a lot of really big innings for us this year,” Hansen said. “His mental approach to the game is second-to-none, and he’s one of the hardest workers I’ve really been around, too.”

A 6’0, 198-pounder from San Antonio Reagan, Sthele is known as a power pitcher with a plus changeup.

Redshirt freshman right-hander Andre Duplantier also returns after missing the 2021 season due to elbow surgery. In eight promising appearances in 2020, Duplantier struck out 13 batters over 9.0 innings and held opponents to a .129 batting average with a three-pitch mix.

The relief rotation will also feature three “big, electric arms,” as Pierce called them — redshirt sophomore right-hander Jared Southard, redshirt junior right-hander Daniel Blair, and redshirt sophomore right-hander Zane Morehouse.

Southard struggled in three appearances as a freshman before flashing in 12 appearances last season, mostly against midweek opponents, striking out 16 batters in 10.0 innings without allowing any runs, earned or unearned.

A transfer from Winthrop, Blair struggled with his control as a starter, but is capable of striking out opponents hitters could become a valuable asset if he can command his pitches better.

With 126 strikeouts in 80 innings for Dyersburg State last season, Morehouse has a devastating curveball PIerce called the nastiest pitch on the entire team, high praise considering the pitching quality on the Forty Acres.


Texas opens the season with a three-game series at UFCU Disch-Falk Field with first pitch on Friday at 6:30 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network. The Owls replaced Matt Bragga after compiling a 51-76-1 record over three disappointing season, hiring Jose Cruz Jr., who has retooled the roster with transfers and freshmen.

Current students will receive free admission, with free pizza for the first 400 students and free shirts for the first 250 students.