Column

Bohls: Confidence? Check. Big 12 cred? Not yet, but Texas baseball is getting closer

Posted March 15th, 2017

Story highlights
  • The Texas baseball team has won its last six in a row in impressive fashion, but first baseman Kacy Clemens say the team "is still forming."
  • With a team hitting just .245 overall and ranked 214th nationally in that category, the Longhorns have to become more disciplined hitters and make better contact.
  • First-year head coach David Pierce says, "We're one of the guys doing the hunting now."

Texas baseball hasn’t arrived. Not yet. Not even close.

It hasn’t even printed out a boarding pass. But the Longhorns are making big strides in getting there.

What’s as comforting as anything has been the notion that these players seem to get it. They know they’re not there until, well, they’re there.

Confidence? Of course.

“It’s high right now,” said sophomore catcher Michael McCann, who’s hitting at a torrid .478 pace. “But we need to stay at a lower level.”

Credibility? Not yet.

“We’re a long ways away from being the caliber of team we want to be,” first-year head coach David Pierce said. “I know we have a great conference. TCU, Texas Tech … Baylor is hot right now. We’re one of the guys doing the hunting now.”

The University of Team team celebrates win in a game of the Texas A&M University versus the University of Texas at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin, Texas on February 19, 2017 (Andy Nietupski for AMERICAN STATESMAN)

The Longhorns (13-6) haven’t been the hunted in a while, having missed the NCAA postseason three of the last five years.

They’ve won six straight games in impressive manner to enter Big 12 play this week, but they haven’t done anything consistently for more than one week. They swept UCLA in three games, and before a packed house at Disch-Falk Field on an electric Tuesday night clipped 17th-ranked Texas A&M, which at .322 was hitting some 76 percentage points higher than Texas.

But the Longhorns are still not ranked nationally. They are, however, exhibiting brilliant starting pitching, terrific defense and tight chemistry in the clubhouse, all encouraging signs that a legitimate turnaround may be in order.

They’d just better keep it turned around.

A 13-6 record is a healthy start, but the Longhorns have to deal with 11th-ranked Texas Tech — one of three Big 12 clubs ranked in the top 20 — in a three-game set starting Friday, and they have prove they have the mentality to win tight games as they have of late.

Coach David Pierce (#22) discusses call with first base umpire in a game of the Texas A&M University versus the University of Texas at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin, Texas on March 14, 2017 (Andy Nietupski for AMERICAN STATESMAN)

In short, Texas is showing a glimmer of the caliber of team it can be. It has all the makings of a solid club, but must prove it over the long haul. Remember, this is a storied, albeit currently broken program that has won just eight NCAA postseason games and lost five over the last five seasons and played in just one super-regional.

“We’re still forming as a team,” said senior first baseman Kacy Clemens, clearly the heart and soul of the team. “Our hitters have got to get disciplined enough to know what we can and what we can’t hit. We’re still trying to find the back end of the bullpen and find a DH, and we hope we can figure it out as we go into Big 12 play.”

Texas has showed promise before and collapsed. A suspect offense that ranks 214th nationally with far too many strikeouts is still troubling, and injuries to struggling veterans Patrick Mathis (ankle) and Zane Gurwitz (hamstring) could deplete the outfield. Mathis has pop but is making too little contact, hitting only .220 with an unseemly 22 strikeouts in 50 at-bats. Gurwitz can’t stay healthy and is hitting just .194.

Starting pitcher Nick Kennedy (#32) in a game of the Texas A&M University versus the University of Texas at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin, Texas on March 14, 2017 (Andy Nietupski for AMERICAN STATESMAN)

The bullpen hasn’t been much better. While Beau Ridgeway threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings against the Aggies and Chase Shugart induced a pair of game-ending groundouts to leave the tying run on third, seven walks by four relievers is unacceptable. Groomed closer Kyle Johnston still can’t master his location issues and gave up two runs on a single and three straight walks to hurt his cause moving forward.

So does Pierce consider him his closer?

“I do,” he said. “But you always have backups.”

He’d better. Augie Garrido had backups, too, but poor relief and horrendous hitting doomed his last season.

Hitting, health and hey, you in the bullpen will likely shape this team’s season.

“Our pitching staff is really doing a great job,” McCann said. “If we score three runs or more, it’s hard to beat us.”

Pierce has Texas’ best starting rotation in years in Morgan Cooper, Nolan Kingham and Blair Henley, who collectively are responsible for a staff with the nation’s 17th lowest ERA at 2.54. Texas got a great performance Tuesday out of sophomore Nick Kennedy with five innings and six strikeouts and no earned runs, and might eventually need the lefty in an all-righty rotation.

“I was really proud of the way Nick went out and pitched his tail off,” Pierce said. “He really grew up tonight when we needed him. Nick at times would get too amped up. He’d throw a pitch up and out, and you think he’s lost it. But he’s having the ability now to refocus.”

At this point, Pierce said he’s “very confident” with the current setup. Those pitchers, coupled with superior defense, should keep the Longhorns in most games as they head into Big 12 play.

It’s still a team with some glaring deficiencies. Pitching isn’t one of them. For now, neither is confidence.

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