Texas baseball players Masen Hibbeler (left), Tate Shaw and Jake McKenzie celebrate a grand slam hit by Kody Clemens (2) against UT-RGV in Austin on April 17, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: At stake in Lubbock for Texas? A possible Big 12 baseball title and national seed, that’s all

David Pierce has revived the Longhorns, but erratic pitching and up-and-down hitting need to solidify in time for an NCAA run.

Posted May 3rd, 2018

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There is no proof that Aristotle ever played baseball, but David Pierce may be channeling his inner Greek philosopher these days because the whole of his Texas team is without question greater than the sum of its parts.

Aristotle didn’t necessarily have the Longhorns in mind when he uttered his sage wisdom, but they do have some very good parts. And, as a result, the whole’s pretty good for this team sitting in second place in the Big 12 and poised for the post-season.

Sum, uh, some things, however, may not matter.

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Who cares if Texas has struggled on the road, mightily at times and not always against the best competition? The Longhorns are 7-10 away from the Disch.

Or if the starting pitching has been anything but dominant, and the bullpen redefines erratic? The team’s ERA is an unsightly 4.31.

Or if the much-improved offense can go dormant at times? Its .271 collective batting average ranks sixth in the nine-team Big 12.

Texas infielder David Hamilton (1) jumps into a mob of his teammates after hitting a walk-off grand slam in an NCAA baseball game against Texas State in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. The grand slam lifted Texas to an 11-10 win over Texas State. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

That said, Texas (31-17, 12-6 Big 12) is sitting pretty even though Pierce said the Longhorns can play “ugly, ugly, ugly at times,” like for eight innings on a Tuesday night. Again, didn’t really matter because they can still muster up some magic.

How else would one explain light-hitting David Hamilton crushing a walk-off grand slam to key a five-run ninth-inning rally for an 11-10 win over Texas State? Hamilton’s known more for his fancy glovework and his 26 stolen bases, but there he was coming through with the biggest home run of his life for Texas’ 12th comeback victory.

Pierce has made his Longhorns relevant again.

His Horns travel to take on dangerous, ninth-ranked Texas Tech (34-12, 11-7) starting Friday, with all kinds of positive things on the line.

Like momentum in the final month of the regular season.

Like a possible Big 12 championship.

Like a potential national seed.

“Coach told us to no matter what our individual numbers are, to clear our minds and set our eyes on the path ahead,” said closer Andy McGuire, maybe the only reliable arm in relief. “In May, anything can happen. A lot of fun things are coming up.”

Texas coach David Pierce is ejected from the third inning of a 10-5 win over Oklahoma State at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on March 25, 2018. JAMIE HARMS / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Few would normally include a trip to Lubbock among those, certainly against a Red Raiders team whose .312 batting average ranks fifth nationally and whose 60 home runs are the seventh most in the country.

But the 24th-ranked Longhorns are approaching this final Big 12 road series with a profound sense of purpose, a strong dose of resiliency and some badly needed mojo, thanks to Hamilton’s heroics.

“Coach says we don’t start playing until we’re down 3-0,” Hamilton said. “Once we start pitching, we’re gonna be nasty.”

It was the perfect tonic for a Texas team that had not looked sharp on the road with two losses to lowly West Virginia that left the Longhorns a full three games behind conference-leading Oklahoma State. That said, Texas proved to itself and any doubters that it still has enough fight to battle through, especially in the month when the best teams start to peak.

Texas is nowhere close to peaking, but knows it.

“This series gives us an opportunity for hosting (an NCAA regional),” Pierce said, “and potentially be a national seed.”

All of that could be within the reach of this club that knows it has to pitch better, especially in relief. Pierce used nine on the mound Tuesday, including former closer Beau Ridgeway, who has vanished with a loss of confidence.

“It’s been really frustrating because we’re not getting it done out of the bullpen,” Pierce said. “Guys are trying to earn innings, and it’s May.”

He rested both Bryce Elder and Josh Sawyer during the mid-week game and says he’s prepared to use his three starters deep into games this weekend. Pierce doesn’t have any other choice although Nolan Kingham, Chase Shugart and Blair Henley have given him equal cause for alarm at times.

Texas pitcher Nolan Kingham started on the mound against New Orleans at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on April 20, 2018.
JAMIE HARMS / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Texas doesn’t have its usual dominant ace. It certainly doesn’t have a No. 4 starter, the pitcher the team can trust to step in as needed in these final two series against Tech and TCU. The pitchers rank just 195th out of 300 teams in strikeouts per nine innings and didn’t strike out a single Texas State batter until the seventh.

Twice in Big 12 games, Kingham could go no longer than two innings and lasted just five against West Virginia. In fact, his best outing was a four-inning scoreless relief stint versus Oklahoma. Shugart was roughed up for 11 hits by the Mountaineers. Henley has allowed four earned runs in three of his four starts in Big 12 play.

With so many freshmen or junior-college newcomers on the staff, the results have been wildly fluctuating with no one steady enough to earn jobs. They’ll be severely tested in the winds of West Texas by Tech hitters Josh Lung, Grant Little and Gabe Holt, all of whom are hitting .350 or better.

Texas clearly has an NCAA bid safely locked up, although Pierce said, “In the post-season, I’m never comfortable, but we should be in a fairly good position.” One mock bracket lists the Longhorns as a No. 2 seed headed West for the second time in a row in a foursome with UCLA. The league is a bit down this season with only five teams likely to get NCAA invitations compared to a power league like the SEC, which hopes to get 11. While OSU has been the surprise team of the conference as a preseason sixth pick, it still has to visit surging Baylor before hosting Texas Tech.

Texas has done its best work against the top of the Big 12, winning series against OSU as well as fourth-place Oklahoma and fifth-place Baylor. In April, the Longhorns posted a 13-5 record and are now 24-7 at home where the Horns hope to host a regional.

“April’s actually been our best month,” Pierce said, “even though it hasn’t always been pretty. We’ve got to build on this game and have a good May. That’s a good start.”

This weekend’s series

No. 24 Texas at No. 9 Texas Tech, Friday-Sunday

Friday (6:30, FSSW+, 104.9): UT RHP Nolan Kingham (5-2, 3.32) vs. RHP Davis Martin (6-3, 3.17)

Saturday (1, ESPNU, 104.9): UT RHP Chase Shugart (4-2, 4.43) vs. RHP Caleb Killian (7-1, 1.75)

Sunday (2, FSSW+, 104.9): UT RHP Blair Henley (5-6, 3.32) vs. RHP John McMillon (4-2, 4.14)

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