Even when Texas’ baseball team travels to Oklahoma this weekend, the Longhorns should still expect to see a friendly face or two in Norman.
Texas first baseman Jake McKenzie played for the same Dallas Mustangs club program that also produced Sooners outfielders Steele Walker and Kyler Murray. Long-time UT super fan Scott Wilson, who has made it to 1,145 straight Longhorns games, is a safe bet to be at L. Dale Mitchell Park.
And then there’s Skip Johnson, who was Augie Garrido’s pitching coach at Texas from 2007 to 2016.
Johnson, in his first season at OU, has his Sooners (25-11, 8-1 Big 12) ranked 16th nationally. Oklahoma is coming off a 20-3 rout Wednesday of Oral Roberts. Texas (22-13, 9-3) is just behind OU in the Big 12 race.
“Skip obviously recruited me and recruited a lot of our older pitching guys,” said UT junior Josh Sawyer. “It’s been cool to see them do well, but we’re going to hope they don’t do too well this weekend.”
There are seven Longhorns who pitched for Johnson. Sawyer said he received a congratulatory message from his old coach earlier this season when he returned from a two-year injury-riddled hiatus. On Monday, Johnson exchanged pleasantries with some of his former players at the memorial service for Garrido.
“He instilled that bulldog mentality in me,” said junior Chase Shugart, who’s expected to start Saturday’s game. “These past two years with the new coaching staff, they’ve done the same thing. Both coaches really understand my personality and my competitiveness, and they’ve really helped me excel in what I want to do.”
Last year — Texas’ first without Johnson — the Longhorns’ 3.15 team ERA ranked ninth nationally. Six UT pitchers were selected in the MLB draft. This year, however, Texas has slumped to a 4.38 ERA in what has been a roller-coaster season. The Longhorns have produced four shutouts this year (they had five at this point last season) and both Nolan Kingham and Blair Henley have earned Big 12 pitcher of the week awards. But on the other hand, Tuesday’s loss at A&M was the 17th time this season that UT has allowed at least five runs.
Last weekend, Texas swept Baylor and got quality outings from Shugart and Henley. Kingham, the staff’s ace, lasted only two innings in his start — his second such outing in as many weeks — but both Shugart and UT coach David Pierce raved to reporters this week about his bullpen session on Tuesday.
“I’m still trying to beat them in what they do and they’re going to try to beat me in what I do,” Shugart said. “Instilling that inner-competition between us has really helped us out.”
Pierce, aided by assistant coach Phil Haig, has called most of UT’s pitches this season. But he ceded control to Shugart in last Saturday’s 2-0 win over Baylor. Shugart allowed five hits and five walks over seven innings while throwing a career-high 120 pitches.
Pierce noted his pitchers have the freedom to shake off his sign if they feel comfortable with another pitch. Pierce took responsibility for the slew of sliders that relief pitcher Bryce Elder threw to A&M’s Hunter Coleman, one of which was driven to left field for the game-deciding hit. Elder later asked Pierce why he didn’t call for an inside fastball against the Aggies’ cleanup hitter.
“That was a great question, and that’s what I asked him right back,” Pierce retorted. “I’m going to your strength versus this situation. If you make the pitch in my mind, he’s out; but you didn’t have that in your mind. If you go fastball in and you freeze him, you win. If you go fastball in with conviction and he hits it out of the ballpark, I’m not going to say a word.”
Oklahoma leads the Big 12 with its 3.25 ERA, which ranks 28th nationally (Texas ranks 118th). The Sooners are hitting .284. Wednesday’s whacking of Oral Roberts marked the 10th time the Sooners have scored double-digit runs.
This weekend’s series
Texas (22-13, 9-3 Big 12) at No. 16 Oklahoma (25-11, 8-1), Friday-Sunday
Friday (6:30 p.m., Sooner Sports Network, 104.9): UT RHP Nolan Kingham (4-2, 4.14) vs. RHP Jake Irvin (5-0, 2.77)
Saturday (8 p.m., ESPNU, 104.9): UT RHP Chase Shugart (3-2, 4.86) vs. RHP Devon Perez (4-0, 2.61)
Sunday (1 p.m., ESPN2, 104.9): UT RHP Blair Henley (5-3, 2.92) vs. RHP Nathan Wiles (2-2, 4.04)