David Pierce can smell a turnaround.
He sees that Texas is slowly turning a corner, but the Horns missed out on a chance to make a huge statement this weekend.
The good news? The unranked Longhorns took two of three games from the No. 16 Oklahoma Sooners to pull to .500 in the Big 12. The Horns found some offense when it mattered in the first two games, racking up 14 runs on 21 hits, but there is a feeling that the Horns let one get away Sunday.
Don’t get me wrong; Texas will take a series win over Oklahoma all day long and twice on getaway day, but a chance to sweep a quality club doesn’t come around often, given UT’s struggles to consistently put up runs in conference play.
“We gave them some at-bats and started trying a little too hard at the end,” said outfielder Travis Jones. “We all wanted it, and it kind of hurts not to get it.”
Sunday’s 2-1 loss will go down as one of those could-have-been moments the Horns will file away as the season progresses. Texas will take a 6-6 mark in the Big 12 after dropping two of three to Kansas, the only team in this nine-team league that’s currently under .500. The offense is still not where Pierce wants it to be, but production in the first two games was encouraging moving forward, though the Horns are slightly behind the pace sat by last season’s disappointing team, which was 7-5 in Big 12 play through 12 games.
“In this league, if you win two out of three at home and have an opportunity to do it on the road and occasionally have the chance to sweep, it’s a solid series,” Pierce said.
Adding to the what-could-have-been feeling was the way the Horns started. The first three batters reached — two on hits — but Texas managed only three hits the rest of the game, most of the frustration having to do with Oklahoma freshman starter Nathan Wiles and reliever Connor Berry, who combined to strike out nine in eight innings.
Texas starter Kyle Johnston was decent but issued five walks as control continues to be his biggest enemy. In keeping with his history, Johnston was dominant at times — he threw a combined 12 pitches in the third and fourth innings — but was errant at others with a pair of wild pitches. He was plenty good enough at times to earn another shot at a weekend start. It’s always good to have options.
“Our defense has always been solid up to this point and the pitching gives us an opportunity,” Pierce said. “I think there’s a mentality in both of those areas that the kids are really buying into. Offensively, we faced some good arms, but we let a couple of opportunities early get away from us to put it in a pressure situation there in the eighth (and) ninth.”
It didn’t help that Texas’ cleanup hitter, Kacy Clemens, the only regular starter hitting over .300, was ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the fourth inning after bringing in Texas’ only run with a sacrifice fly in the first. From what I hear, he didn’t go all Crash Davis on home plate umpire David Wiley but must have said enough to earn an early shower. Clemens has to be smarter because this offense is severely crippled with him out of action. Now he will have to sit out Tuesday’s rematch here against Texas State.
With conference series coming up against Baylor, Oklahoma State and league-leading TCU, the Horns are going to have to find those clutch hits Pierce spoke of. Texas is 4-10 in one-run games with a batting average of .201, which won’t get it done against quality competition. It’s a club built on pitching and defense, but those two areas can only take a team so far.
The offense has to come around — Texas is hitting a paltry .214 in conference — and opportunities like Sunday’s have to be taken advantage of if the Horns are rise up the charts.
“We just have to find a way to win these types of games,” Pierce said, “and that’s about maturing from a big win, a big series, and being ready to do it again on Day 3.”