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No. 2 Texas opens Big 12 play with high-profile series at No. 16 Texas Tech

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The Longhorns get a quick look at one of the conference opponents most likely to challenge David Pierce’s group for the Big 12 title.

Texas baseball

Following a four-game homestand at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, the No. 2 Texas Longhorns head out to the South Plains this weekend for a big-time matchup against the No. 16 Texas Tech Red Raiders at Dan Law Field at Rip Griffin Park.

Due to the pandemic, it’s the first meeting between the two programs in Lubbock since 2018 with each winning 13 meetings since Texas Tech head coach Tim Tadlock took over in 2013, although Tadlock has not have a home series victory against Texas yet. The Red Raiders have won 13 straight home games and sit at 18-4 this season.

Despite the separation in the rankings, there may not be much actually separating these two teams — the ELO rankings slot Texas at No. 3 and Texas Tech at No. 5 with schedule strength a main differentiator, as the Longhorns have faced a significantly more difficult road to conference play.

Texas enters the game at 18-5 on a five-game winning streak coming against weak opponents, taking advantage to the tune of 13.2 runs per game and a .388 batting average with 15 doubles and 11 homers. The versatile Murphy Stehly, who is currently playing right field primarily, has four home runs and 12 RBI during the current winning streak and first baseman Ivan Melendez is fifth nationally in home runs with 10 and fifth in RBI with 33, 15 of them coming with two outs. Of the 166 runs driven in by the Longhorns, two-out RBI account for 81 of those runs (49 percent).

Starting pitchers Pete Hansen and Tristan Stevens have led the way on the mound this season — Hansen is 4-0 with a 2.57 ERA and leads the team with 33 strikeouts, while Stevens is 4-1 with a 1.17 ERA in 30.2 innings. So the Longhorns are in good shape with their Friday and Saturday starters, but left-hander Lucas Gordon faces the biggest challenge of his career on Sunday after the best outing of his career, going seven scoreless innings against Incarnate Word, allowing only four hits with four strikeouts and zero walks.

The Texas Tech pitching staff will challenge the ability of Texas hitters to make contact. Strikeouts have been a problem for the Longhorns with a 24-percent K rate and the Red Raiders rank tied for fourth nationally with 244 strikeouts. Saturday starter Brandon Birdsell leads the team with 43 strikeouts, including 15 against Rice on March 12.

In the batter’s box, Texas Tech hitters will force Texas to throw strikes — the Red Raiders are tied for first nationally with 151 walks drawn, led by second baseman Jace Jung with 23 walks. Jung is arguably the best player in the conference and a top MLB Draft prospect who is hitting .388 with a .538 on-base percentage. The Red Raiders hit .290 as a team with 25 home runs.

Probably pitching matchups

FRIDAY – Texas LHP Pete Hansen (4-0, 2.57) vs. Texas Tech RHP Andrew Morris (2-0, 4.84)

SATURDAY – Texas RHP Tristan Stevens (4-1, 1.17) vs. Texas Tech RHP Brandon Birdsell (3-1, 1.80)

SUNDAY – Texas LHP Lucas Gordon (1-1, 1.61) vs. Texas Tech LHP Mason Molina (1-2, 2.70)

First pitch on Friday is at 6:30 p.m. Central, followed by 2 p.m. Central on Saturday and Sunday. Big 12 Now on ESPN+ is carrying all three games. With warm weather forecast for the weekend, the ball should be carrying in Lubbock, but the wind shouldn’t play a major factor.