Texas outfielder Austin Todd (44) waits to compete against Texas Tech at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on March 17, 2019. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: There’s always next year, and 2020 looks brighter for Texas baseball

At 25-25, the meandering Longhorns look to a potentially brighter 2020 season, one without the weird injuries, youthful mistakes and bad mojo.

Posted May 10th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • The Longhorns went from playing in the College World Series last year to probably missing the Big 12 tournament this year.
  • All-American shortstop David Hamilton missed the whole season; catcher D.J. Petrinsky played only 11 games.
  • Sophomore Bryce Elder has been named the Big 12's pitcher of the week three times this season.

In all likelihood, Texas’ baseball season ends next Saturday.

There is a slim possibility of the post-season — maybe a 10-percent chance, the head coach says — but it will likely come crashing to an embarrassing conclusion with the home finale against Oklahoma.

Pending a colossal miracle that probably includes a sweep of OU and other help as well, the Longhorns will become the only team in the Big 12 not to qualify for the conference tournament and will go on summer vacation in mid-May.

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The season has been an unmitigated disaster. No way around it.

“Our only real hope is to sweep,” third-year head coach David Pierce told me. “But I told the team if we can sweep LSU, there’s always hope.”

But when did the season turn so wrong? And where does Pierce go from here?

Texas head coach David Pierce calls for a reliever from the bullpen during an NCAA baseball game against Rice on Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
Before we dissect, know this: Pierce is the man for the job and will get this turned around. Quickly, it says here.

The last three months have been a culmination of rotten luck, horrendous injuries, immature pitching, raw position players, oversized expectations and a rigorous schedule that includes a much stronger Big 12 than anticipated.

A perfect imperfect storm.

“We’ve been waiting for here’s the moment and the turning point,” Pierce said. “It’s really been frustrating. We’re just not winning games, and it can snowball.”

And become a blizzard.

The result has been a mediocre 25-25 record, an ugly 6-14 league mark and considerable gnashing of teeth. Mostly Pierce’s teeth. And harsh, unforgiving and totally out-of-whack Twitter rage, which is ridiculous.

Texas head coach David Pierce argues a call during an NCAA baseball game against Arkansas on March 19, 2019 in Austin. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
“That’s a bunch of BS,” Longhorns great and television analyst Keith Moreland said of the fan fallout. “David’s the right guy. I think the program is good, and the situation is good. It boils down to finding the right personnel.”

Absolutely.

Texas needs a starting pitcher or two. And more left-handers. And bigger, stronger hitters who can bang.

“Texas needs to find a way to get more physical guys,” Moreland said. “Speed is wonderful. But today with people hitting the ball out of the ballpark and moving the fences in (at Disch-Falk) last year, you’ve got to hit 50 home runs as a team to think about winning the national championship. You can win a lot of games 1-0, but you can win a helluva lot more 10-9.”

The Longhorns have hit just 25 out of the park. Nobody has hit more than Zach Zubia’s five. Oklahoma State has 62 deep flies, but in a bandbox. Five other Big 12 teams have homers in the 40s.

Injuries exposed this team’s depth early on and made a mess of the batting order as well as its defensive prowess. Young pitching wasn’t ready. Neither were fielders young (freshman shortstop Bryce Reagan) and old (senior catcher Michael McCann, who was beat down and not equipped for the workload). The hitters that were left tried to do too much and didn’t do enough. Austin Todd was overly aggressive, Zubia not aggressive enough.

Texas collapsed for the following reasons.

Because it lost its All-American shortstop and table-setter to a preseason scooter injury and and its every-day catcher and cleanup hitter early to a torn labrum. So much for being strong up the middle. David Hamilton missed the entire season, D.J. Petrinsky all but 11 games.

Texas catcher DJ Petrinsky looks to the dugout during a game against Kansas at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on March 17, 2018.
JAMIE HARMS / FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Because outrageous expectations outgrew realistic ones as soon as the walk-off win over LSU completed a titanic, three-game sweep. Baseball America ranked Texas fourth in the nation. So much for getting ahead of one’s self.

Because the bullpen imploded, starting with meltdowns in the series against TCU that Texas could have swept when Cole Quintanilla and Kam Fields fell apart. “We made some poor pitches,” Pierce said. “From that point on, they haven’t regained confidence.” So much for momentum. Seven losses since then have come in the ninth inning.

Because with the season-ending injuries to Hamilton and Petrinsky, too much pressure was placed on power hitter Zubia, leadoff hitter Duke Ellis, RBI man Todd and the versatile Masen Hibbler. Zubia represented one of few threats in the lineup and got pitched around all year, Ellis chased or watched pitches on the outside part of the zone. Hibbeler had a horrendous start and never really recovered. So much for offense.

Because a potential winning, turnaround third game with Baylor was washed away with a 6-0 Longhorns lead in the first inning. So much for a split that could have been so much more.

Because Texas never seems to be able to truly develop hitters. Pitchers like Bryce Elder yes, but hitters no. So much for the hope that the lineup could produce more than one measly hitter with a batting average over .272. Only freshman outfielder Eric Kennedy (.300) was consistent.

“It’s the most mystifying season I’ve been around,” said Craig Way, Texas play-by-play legend. “It’s been plug-one-leak, another-springs-out. Really weird.”

The fault ultimately falls on Pierce, who’s tried everything from inserting himself as the third-base coach to playing guys at new positions to recruiting a former backup catcher out of a UT class. He knows it, acknowledges it and embraces it.

But let’s put an end to any scurrilous, is-he-in-trouble talk. He’s not and shouldn’t be and remains committed to restoring Longhorns baseball to its rightful place as a perennial College World Series contender.

“Expectations are always going to be there,” Pierce said. “We’re perfectly fine with that. It’s going to flip back around.”

I’d caution anyone from panicking.

The 2020 season should be much stronger. Can’t be worse, right?

But Elder has been All-Big 12-quality without wins to show for it. His last victory came March 1, but he’s been Big 12 pitcher of the week three times with nary a win in those weeks. He’s a sophomore and developed after a 5.55 ERA as a freshman. Kennedy, who can be a stud, has already shown he can hit at this level. Second baseman Lance Ford is very capable.

The pitching should mature in a year.

Still high on freshmen like Ty Madden, Coy Cobb and returnees like Quintanilla — who may be better suited to be a starter — and Fields. Mason Bryant has to rediscover the strike zone.

The chances of a big turnaround season next year could hinge in large part to decisions by players like Hamilton, Petrinsky and third baseman Ryan Reynolds to return. No. 2 pitcher Blair Henley and Lake Travis recruit phenom Brett Baty are more likely to go pro.

Don’t look for any staff changes, and Pierce and his assistants will be hungry to flip this script.

“It’s an enigma, no doubt,” Moreland said. “This team was so gritty early and played well. But if you don’t have your every-day shortstop, catcher and first baseman, it catches up to you.”

Texas should catch back up in 2020.

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