Texas' Duke Ellis (11) high-fives Zach Zubia after scoring against Purdue on Feb. 24, 2019 in Austin. [Rodolfo Gonzalez/for STATESMAN]

Cedric Golden

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Golden: With stiff competition looming, Texas baseball off to great start in 2019

Posted February 24th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • The Horns took three of the four games in the series win over Purdue.
  • Texas will get stiffer tests moving forward against LSU, Stanford and Texas Tech.
  • The 6-2 start to the season is Texas' best since 2015, when that team started out 8-2.

They’re pretty good.

We know that much about the 2019 Texas Longhorns.

The Horns are off to a a 6-2 start, their best since 2015 team that started off 8-2. The present-day club is feeling pretty good about things, especially after bouncing back from that one-hit, four-error embarrassment in Saturday’s nightcap to take three of four from Purdue. Texas got the series win with Sunday’s 3-0 result and should carry a nice measure of confidence into a busy stretch of 10 games over 13 days, starting with Tuesday’s home game against Sam Houston State.

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The Horns look good, but can they be great?

Texas Ryan Reynolds, (5), gets a high five from Michael McCann, (40), after getting the out on a bunt play by Purdue Tyler Powers, (2), in the fifth inning of NCAA baseball game held on Sunday Feb. 24, 2019, in Austin, Texas. Texas defeated Purdue 3-0. [Rodolfo Gonzalez for AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
That’s way too early to call, but there are a couple of strong acid tests on the way with a three-game home set against LSU  starting Friday followed by four at Stanford. The legendary Augie Garrido loved to pit his teams against NCAA baseball royalty during non-conference games to gauge what areas needed the most attention before the conference games began, and his successor is no different.

“I always think it’s important to play the best,”  UT coach David Pierce said. “You always want a balanced schedule. We’ve got a really really tough stretch starting this weekend. It gives us an opportunity to find out who we are, especially against some of the best teams in the country, and that’s what we want to be — the best team in the country.”

The group is in a good place. Pierce acknowledged that the defense has to improve — the Horns had eight errors in four games over the weekend — and he wants to see the team exhibit the same exuberant freedom he’s seeing in practice. Offensively, he wants better at-bats with two strikes. While five hits won’t cut it moving forward, credit has to go to Purdue for taking away two would-be UT hits with great defense.

Runs weren’t easy to come by Sunday and the Texas arms really put the clamps to the Boilermakers to make that three-spot stand up. Sophomore right-hander Matt Whelan threw two-hit ball over five innings and relievers Kamron Fields and Cole Quintanilla kept Purdue silent over the last four.

“That really is a comfort to know that if you’re not getting the job done, that the guy behind you, he’s got a quality arm,” Whelan said. “Probably better stuff than me … but he’s going to get the job done.”

Meanwhile, senior catcher Michael McCann, who played in only 30 of the team’s 65 games last season, has become an early feel-good story. He always wielded a nice axe but he’s getting raves for how he’s handling the staff.

“He’s the heartbeat of this team,” Pierce said. “He wants to lead and he’s one reason our pitching staff is doing so well.”

Third baseman Ryan Reynolds (aka Deadpool) is not only hitting .321 to start the season but is wrecking shop in the field. His blind, running basket catch of a foul pop on the fourth inning was topped only by his perfect scoop and throw of Tyler Powers’ bunt attempt in the sixth.

Add to that, Texas is getting good offensive production so far from other veterans like McCann, Austin Todd and DJ Petrinsky. Designated hitter Zach Zubia hasn’t come on yet, but he squared up a couple of good swings though he didn’t have a hit to show for it.

The next two weeks will give us a better look at what we can expect since Texas is taking a step up on competition. Add in the conference-opening series against Texas Tech and the Horns are playing three top-12 teams over the next three weekends.

Most signs point to the Horns being on an upward arc.  Pierce calls them a “work in progress.”

Just how much remains to be seen.

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