After starting April with a neutral-site series win over the Oklahoma Sooners, the No. 7 Texas Longhorns (21-9) begin a five-game homestand with a Tuesday contest against the UTRGV Vaqueros (16-11) at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.
Beyond the five straight home games that include a conference series against No. 23 TCU, Texas plays 14 of the next 18 games in Austin, where the Longhorns are 10-2 this season, thanks in part to averaging 6,958 fans in attendance, which would set a program record.
The burnt orange and white faithful have been treated to the Big 12’s best offense — Texas leads the conference with a .318 batting average and 47 home runs.
Following the departures of Zach Zubia, Mike Antico, and Cam Williams, who combined for 33 home runs last season, the Horns weren’t expected to have nearly as much power. But numerous players have flashed improved power this year.
Against Oklahoma, catcher Silas Ardoin hit his third and fourth home runs on Saturday after hitting one total in his first two seasons. On Sunday, right fielder/designated hitter Murphy Stehly’s three-run home run gave him eight this season after he only hit one during his first two years on the Forty Acres. Outfielder/designated hitter Dylan Campbell hit two as well, the second and third of his career.
There were heightened expectations for Campbell entering this season and he’s finally started to heat up after a slow start — all three of his extra-base hits this year came in the last week, during which he raised his batting average from .204 to .234.
The best news for Campbell may be the return of Austin Todd from his shoulder injury, allowing Campbell to return to a role as the fourth outfielder and occasional designated hitter. Todd isn’t expected to play right field again, but he should solidify the lineup as the designated hitter after going 3-for-5 with one run and two RBI on Sunday.
Less clear, still, is how head coach David Pierce will get out of games with his bullpen.
Right-hander Aaron Nixon had another disastrous appearance against Oklahoma on Saturday, entering the game with one out and runners on first and second in the seventh inning with Texas down 2-1, walked the bases loaded, then gave up a two-run single. After another walk, Nixon was able to get out of the inning, but then allowed another single and a walk in the eighth before exiting the game in favor of right-hander Zane Morehouse. Nixon still isn’t able to locate his fastball and hitters have almost completely eliminated it as a pitch they are willing to swing it, forcing Nixon to throw his slider for strikes. Hitters aren’t offering on that pitch out of the zone like they do when Nixon can locate his fastball down, taking away one of the Nixon’s most effective way of attacking them.
Right now, Nixon isn’t usable in high-leverage situations and may have to regain his confidence in situations where the score isn’t close.
Left-hander Luke Harrison was able to get out of a bases-loaded jam on Saturday with a strikeout and then got through a full inning of work with the assistance of Ardoin, who threw out a runner trying to steal second. Harrison ultimately gave up two runs after he gave up a full-count walk and a bunt single when right-hander Marcus Olivarez gave up a three-run home run, but it was a solid appearance overall considering the early departure of left-hander Lucas Gordon in the fourth inning.
The home run allowed by Olivarez came on a mistake to Sooners shortstop Peyton Graham, a top-40 MLB Draft prospect this season, and was his first run allowed this season. It was also the only hit allowed by OIivarez in his two innings of work on Sunday, which included three strikeouts. Because Olivarez has good stuff and hasn’t had control issues with his fastball, he’s looking like one of the best options for Texas out of the bullpen right now despite paying for the poorly-located pitch to Graham.
Right-hander Coy Cobb, operating from his lowered arm slot, is also looking like one of the better options. Cobb had a 1-2-3 ninth on Friday in the 7-1 win and pitched two innings in Sunday’s 12-8 comeback victory, allowing one run on two hits with a walk, his first of the season, ending a streak of six appearances without allowing a run. The change in mechanics has reduced Cobb’s velocity, but he gets plenty of movement and has been able to stay in the strike zone and pitch to weak contact — the double he gave up on Sunday was the first extra-base hit allowed this season. Cobb might be the best bet to finish games right now, as he did twice against the Sooners.
Against UTRGV, right-hander Justin Eckhardt (1-0, 4.32) will get the start as he tries to bounce back from his rough outing against Texas A&M last week, which ended a streak of three solid appearances for Eckhardt, including six scoreless innings against Central Arkansas.
Eckhardt will face a Vaqueros team that hits .299 with 28 home runs, led by Mississippi State transfer Brandon Pimentel, who is batting .431 with nine home runs and 10 doubles. Four other regulars hit over .316 and boast an OPS over .940 — this is a solid offensive team.
Right-hander Max Balderrama Jr. (1-1, 10.12) will receive the start, only his second of the season. He’s made 12 appearances, but hasn’t pitched more than two innings in any of them and has a 2.55 WHIP, so expect the Longhorns to see a number of pitchers this evening.
Texas is 52-6 in the all-time series against UTRGV, including 44-1 at home. First pitch is at 6:30 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network.