After falling victim to the Kansas State Wildcats in Manhattan last weekend, the No. 10 Texas Longhorns (26-12) return to UFCU Disch-Falk Field for five games this week, beginning with Tuesday and Wednesday matchups against the Air Force Academy Fighting Falcons (15-19).
Tuesday marks the first-ever meeting between the two programs as the Fighting Falcons arrive in Austin with a three-game losing streak and a 7-11 record away from Colorado Springs. But the Longhorns have been struggling, as well, dropping the first two games in Manhattan and boasting a record of 15-12 since starting the season 11-0.
Beyond the pressure to comfortably win both games — hardly a guarantee with the inconsistency of Tuesday starter Justin Eckhardt and the struggles of former midweek starter Andre Duplantier — the health of first baseman Ivan Melendez and left fielder Eric Kennedy will take center stage this week. Melendez sat out the final two games against the Wildcats with shoulder discomfort after a head-first slide at home plate on Thursday while Kennedy hasn’t played in 17 days due to a sore hamstring that was initially thought to be a day-to-day injury.
Along with missing the power of Melendez and the speed of Kennedy, those players also represent two of the top five hitters for the Longhorns, a significant loss to the lineup.
If neither player is available against Air Force, it could make the series much more difficult for Texas with so many pitchers likely needing to work out of the bullpen — Longhorns head coach David Pierce may need contributions from pitchers who don’t make regular appearances, even in midweek games.
Third baseman Jay Thomason, a left-handed hitter who is batting .331, profiles as a difficult matchup for Texas — the Alabama product is tied for the Mountain West lead with 11 home runs and has the sixth-best slugging percentage in the conference (.645). The team’s leading hitter, first baseman Sam Kulasingam, is batting .355 with 12 doubles and four home rubs, also from the left side of the plate. As a team, the Air Force hits .280 with 38 home runs on the season.
The Longhorns should be able to generate some offense in these two games with the Fighting Falcons entering the series with a 6.36 staff ERA as opponents bat .298 against Air Force. Tuesday’s starter, right-hander Dylan Rogers, is a freshman from Dallas who has only pitched more than three innings once this season. The last Wednesday starter for Air Force, right-hander Sawyer Hawks, is also a freshman who has only pitched more than three innings once this season, although it came in his last midweek start against Abilene Christian when he allowed only a single unearned run while scattering six hits over four innings. Close Doyle Gehring has six saves this season with a 3.86 ERA, but struggled in his last outing, allowing four runs on six hits in two innings against Nevada last Friday.
Probable pitching matchups
TUESDAY – Texas RHP Justin Eckhardt (1-0, 5.40) vs. Air Force RHP Dylan Rogers (0-0, 5.57)
WEDNESDAY – Texas TBA vs. Air Force TBA
First pitch on Tuesday is set for 6:30 p.m. Central, followed by a 4:00 p.m. Central first pitch on Wednesday. Longhorn Network will televise both games.