LUBBOCK — These days, it seems as if every Texas baseball game is a referendum on the season.
Many suggest each win signals the start of a turnaround. And a loss spells doom and pushes coach Augie Garrido one step closer to unemployment.
Such a shortsighted exercise can be exhausting, so maybe the best way to approach Saturday’s 7-4 win over Texas Tech is to simply appreciate its beauty in isolation.
Who knows what’s to come over the final 13 regular-season games, but there’s plenty of reason to celebrate this one, which snapped Tech’s 11-game Big 12 win streak in front of a sellout crowd at Rip Griffin Park.
“There was a lot on the line today,” said Garrido, whose team responded well a day after giving up 13 unanswered runs in the opener.
When the RPI comes out next week, it’ll reflect a win for Texas over the nation’s 10th-ranked team, which should certainly boost the Horns (18-21, 8-6) from No. 131, where they resided coming into the day.
Mowing through a lineup of mashers, starter Ty Culbreth and reliever Nolan Kingham combined to retire 14 straight Red Raiders before Kingham plunked Stephen Smith with two down in the ninth inning. Culbreth, who didn’t have his best stuff and walked a season-high four batters, improved to 8-2 and continues to lead the conference in wins. Kingham, who earlier this month couldn’t even make it out of the first inning in his start against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, looks like a new player. He did not surrender a hit over the final three innings and picked up his second save.
Rather than go to Chase Shugart for the ninth, pitching coach Skip Johnson stuck with Kingham, who benefited from an insurance run in the top of the inning on an RBI double by Zane Gurwitz.
“I guess coaches had confidence in me,” Kingham said. “I’m right there with them.”
The big inning was the seventh, when Kacy Clemens and Joe Baker reached base on headfirst slides on consecutive at-bats. That loaded the bases for Patrick Mathis, who ripped an opposite-field single to left for two runs and a 5-4 lead. Immediately after, Gurwitz hit a high chopper through the right side of the infield for another run.
“Those plays happened because we continued to compete, and that was the difference between last night and tonight,” Garrido said.
Mathis has been on a tear this series, collecting two hits and three RBIs in both games. Tech keeps ordering a defensive shift, but Mathis has beaten it with shots up the middle. Mathis also drew a walk with the bases loaded in the first inning.
“He’s done a good job,” Garrido said.
After miscues by all three outfielders Friday, there were significant changes to the defense. Gurwitz moved to center and was replaced at second by Jake McKenzie. Garrido said he did that to bring Gurwitz’s leadership to an outfield with young corners. The switch pushed Tyler Rand to left from center and Travis Jones to designated hitter.
Gurwitz had moved to second base about a month ago.
“He is a very good thinker and a very good baseball mind,” Garrido said. “We missed his leadership out there and his ability.”
The only defensive miscues Saturday belonged to Mathis, who, for the second day in a row, dove for a play he couldn’t possibly have made. It led to a first-inning triple for Tanner Gardner, but luckily for Mathis, Tech was unable to score in the inning.
In the third, Mathis took a bad route and couldn’t get to a ball that dropped in shallow right for one of three runs scored by Tech in the inning. Culbreth, who usually has pinpoint accuracy, didn’t take many chances against the Big 12’s second-best lineup and walked two in the inning. Then in the fourth, Culbreth gave up a solo homer to Stephen Smith for a 4-1 Tech lead.
Yet Culbreth, as he’s done all season, kept UT in the game and allowed just one base runner over his final two innings.
“He’s definitely the heart of our pitching staff,” Kingham said. “Everyone trusts him and he’s just The Guy.”
For Texas, Tres Barrera (double) and Kacy Clemens (sacrifice fly) produced RBIs on consecutive at-bats in the fifth.