It’s a worn out cliche that the start of conference play marks a new season in sports.
But for the Texas baseball team, it sort of rings true. Everything is beginning to have a fresh scent, from a reconfigured infield to the return of three injured players to, well, what happened on Thursday night in the Big 12 opener.
In what may have been their cleanest performance through 22 games, the Longhorns got off to a proper start to league play and took down projected champion TCU, 4-3.
Morgan Cooper’s first weekend start was ultimately overshadowed by an electric bullpen, which used five arms and held the nation’s fifth-ranked team scoreless for the final five innings.
They didn’t need this one, per se, but it’s awfully nice to have it.
“We didn’t have the weird plays,” Longhorns coach Augie Garrido said. “We didn’t have the weird stuff that had been happening to us to this point in time.”
This is the healthiest UT (10-12) has been in a while. Tyler Rand, who has been out out of the lineup since breaking his hand on Feb. 26 against Stanford, batted ninth and had two hits, including a RBI infield single in the second.
Patrick Mathis, who returned last week from a bum hamstring, crushed a two-run home run in the fifth for the game’s final two runs. The ball was crushed and nearly carried into the giant video board in right-center. Also, Mathis made a slick play in the field and held onto the ball after crashing into the wall in the sixth.
Reliever Josh Sawyer, in his second appearance since coming back from a shoulder injury, worked a 1-2-3 eighth before turning into over to Connor Mayes, who earned the save in his new closer’s role.
Sawyer, who is normally quiet and reserved, walked off of the field barking after striking out Josh Watson to end the inning.
This was Texas, healthy, and performing at a level that it’ll have to reach often to stay in Big 12 contention with teams like TCU and Oklahoma State. All hands are currently on deck save for second baseman Joe Baker, who will be out for another month or so with a leg injury.
“I think you got to see what it really is,” Cooper said.
Cooper, who had been starting mid-week games, got the promotion and looked great early, retiring the first nine batters he faced. His next trip through the order wasn’t so smooth, as Cooper labored through a 38-pitch fourth and served up a three-run bomb to Evan Skoug with no outs. However, Skoug’s bomb was the extent of the damage, as TCU (14-4, 3-1) did not score another run in the inning, or for that matter, the game. Cooper got Cam Warner swinging with two men on to end the threat and then retired the first two batters he faced in the fifth before calling it a night.
“Limiting them to three runs was huge,” Garrido said.
Combined, relievers Travis Duke, Blake Wellmann, Chase Shugart, Sawyer and Mayes allowed just four baserunners, which was a departure from some of the recent adventures the bullpen has been through.
Tip your cap to Shugart, who admittedly has been struggling with his confidence. Garrido keeps going to him, though, and Shugart made his coach look smart by coming on and inducing a double-play to get out of the sixth. Making it happen was the revamped middle infield of Zane Gurwitz and Kody Clemens.
The next inning, Shugart hit a batter but then caught him leaning at first and picked him off.
Shugart, a freshman from Bridge City, said he was looking to redeem himself after last week when he misread a bunt that gave Tulane the lead in a Longhorns loss.
“This restores my confidence,” he said. “I wasn’t myself for the past couple of weeks. I learned to be myself and not overdo anything.”