Since the last out of its 2018 season was recorded in Omaha last June, Texas baseball has had to field a few questions about 2019.
How will Texas replace Kody Clemens’ All-American bat in the heart of the lineup?
Who will step up on the mound after five of UT’s top pitchers departed for the minor leagues?
What will one of the country’s top defenses look like after shortstop David Hamilton’s season-ending Achilles injury?
How did the Big 12’s reigning champion end up fourth in this year’s conference’s preseason poll?
Now it’s time for the Longhorns to start providing some answers.
Texas opens its season on Friday when the Longhorns travel to Louisiana-Lafayette for a three-game series. Texas enters this season as the No. 23 team in D1Baseball’s preseason poll. Big 12 coaches picked the Longhorns to finish fourth.
“I think every year you have something to prove,” sophomore designated hitter Zach Zubia said. “Every year, everyone’s going to doubt us a little bit and we accept that. We have to come out every day knowing that the target’s on our back, knowing that we have to prove what we want to do, and that’s make it to Omaha.”
Texas won 42 games last year along with the Big 12’s regular-season crown and a trip to the College World Series. The Longhorns, though, lost Clemens to the Detroit Tigers and first baseman Jake McKenzie to graduation. Starting pitchers Nolan Kingham and Chase Shugart were swooped up in the MLB draft’s 12th round. The bullpen’s top three relievers are also now in the minors.
Kingham was at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Thursday afternoon, but the Atlanta Braves prospect was just getting a workout in. The local media instead chatted with sophomore right-hander Bryce Elder, who will start the opener. He’ll be followed in this series’ rotation by junior Blair Henley and freshman Coy Cobb. None of UT’s pitchers are expected to top 75 pitches this weekend.
With the exception of one last-minute start, Elder spent most of the 2018 season in the bullpen. He had his fall cut short by a finger injury but has been impressive since UT resumed practices. Elder can throw four pitches and Texas coach David Pierce compared him to Ryan Berry, who he worked with at Rice.
“He’s got this cerebral approach,” Pierce said. “I just think he knows what he’s doing, knows what he wants to do and knows who he is.”
Said outfielder Duke Ellis: “He competes his butt off every day. He doesn’t like to lose, and I love that on the mound.”
Last year, ULL posted a 34-25 record but failed to reach the NCAA tournament. The Ragin’ Cajuns are expected to start senior southpaw Gunner Leger on Friday. An All-American in 2017, Leger redshirted last year due to injuries.
He joined shortstop Hayden Cantrelle (18 steals, 46 runs) and outfielder Daniel Lahare (.321, 50 runs) as ULL’s representatives on the Sun Belt’s preseason honor roll. ULL dropped two of last year’s three meetings with Texas, though Lahare did score twice in a 2-1 triumph in which Cantrelle contributed an RBI.
“You never say it’s a must-win on opening weekend, but you definitely want to come out of the gates playing well,” Pierce said. “I expect us to go out there and really compete in a great environment, in a hostile environment. It’s going to be a great test for us early on.”
Following its series against ULL, Texas has a trip booked to Houston for a Tuesday tussle with Rice. The Longhorns will open their home schedule next weekend with four games against Purdue, which qualified for last year’s NCAA tournament.