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Bohls: Rare Friday loss offers solid Texas baseball team a new challenge

Texas' Mike Antico (5) and Trey Faltine provided most of the scoring in a 6-3 loss to Texas Tech with a pair of solo home runs Friday.
  • The Texas baseball team lost a rare Friday game behind ace Ty Madden but has swept nine series.
  • The Longhorns are great at pitching and defense, their trademark skills, but more pop than usual.
  • "Come post-season, I think we'll be at the top of our game," Mike Antico said.

Are you sitting down?

You should because the news is unsettling.

The Texas baseball team actually lost a game Friday and was losing a rain-suspended game Saturday.

Ty Madden lost and didn’t pitch past five innings in Game 1. Tristan Stevens was also ineffective in Game 2. Between them, Texas Tech lit them up for 11 runs.

The Longhorns forgot how to hit in the clutch or hit much at all with only five hits Friday and zero in 16 at-bats with runners in scoring position the first two games. Texas had three homers in the two games, but all were solo shots.

Sure, it was just one game on a Friday evening and a second game suspended in the eighth inning with a 5-3 Red Raiders lead Saturday, to be resumed Sunday afternoon. But the Longhorns are in real danger of losing their first series against the same opponent all year, though they lost three to different teams on opening weekend.

Holy adversity.

But wholly no reason to fear. At least, it says here.

David Pierce has his 34-10 club right where he wants it. Maybe not this weekend, but overall. It's not all that bad when a team starts the year 0-3 and then doesn't encounter another slump until May.

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The third-ranked Longhorns fell 6-3 to Tim Tadlock’s slugging bunch in a closely contested game at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Friday and were struggling again Saturday, trailing by two runs with the bases full of Horns and two outs in the eighth when a torrential downpour hit.

“Win or lose, this team's getting better every day,” said Texas center fielder Mike Antico, who has drastically improved at the plate in April and hit his sixth home run of the year Friday and got two more hits Saturday. “We might not have played our best game tonight, but if we come out of this and win this series, I would say this team's on an incline right now. So, come postseason, I think we'll be at the top of our game.”

Pierce has to think so, too.

In short, this is the best Texas baseball team in a decade. 

He’s got a very balanced team that’s scored in double figures 14 times and a pitching staff that’s allowed three runs or fewer in 30 of the club’s 44 games. The Longhorns rank first in the Big 12 in pitching and defense, their signature assets.

This bump in the road, however, represents a new test for a Longhorn team that’s pretty much avoided any adversity and remained on a roll for two months, winning 16 in a row in April. We'll see how Texas responds.

“I think it's a challenge for us,” Pierce said “It's the first Friday night we've lost since opening weekend. We haven't been in this position in a series, definitely haven't been in this position at all. But we proved last week if we have to play a doubleheader or whatever we have to do, we’re just going to have to reach down deep against a good team.” 

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Even if the Red Raiders do win the series, there’s nothing to suggest anything’s wrong with this Texas team. After all, the Longhorns have won all nine previous series this year, sweeping four opponents in the process.

And Friday’s defeat was pinned on them by a really good Texas Tech team that has been injury-hampered this spring with six key players hurt, including star outfielder and Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Dylan Neuse (back) as well as ace Brandon Birdsell (rotator cuff) and three other pitchers. Yeah, Tadlock might be in line to edge Pierce for league Coach of the Year honors.

The Red Raiders got great pitching Friday, especially from reliever Ryan Sublette. They have the probable Big 12 Player of the Year in freshman second baseman Jace Jung and are playing with a desperation one would expect from a club that’s coming off a home series loss to Baylor and is very accustomed to winning on the big stage.

Remember, Texas Tech has become the face of Big 12 baseball lately, having been to Omaha four times in the past six seasons before the pandemic scotched the 2020 season and having competed with TCU for recent bragging rights.

“I think they're a very gritty team,” Antico said of Tech. “They're a tough team that grinds out at-bats.” 

There’s no shame in falling to the Red Raiders because they played a nearly perfect game in the opener, got impeccable pitching and top-notch defense with rally-stopping catches from their outfield and are still seething over the series loss to Baylor that sent them spiraling out of the top 16.

Just when the calendar is turning to May, Texas finds itself exactly where it wants to be, regardless of the outcome of this series. Among other things, Texas is:

Peaking with 17 wins in its last 19 games.

Full of confidence.

Near the top of the Big 12 standings, a game behind the Horned Frogs after Friday.

Boosted by a pitching rotation that is four deep with probable 2021 first-round draft pick Madden, Saturday starter and control specialist Stevens, Sunday starter Kolby Kubichek and left-handed X-factor Pete Hansen as a starter or long reliever.

Solidified by an assortment of effective throwers in the bullpen that now includes a confident submariner Drew Shifflet off two good outings last week to complement Tanner Witt, Aaron Nixon and Lucas Gordon.

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Madden has been downright dominant this season before a rare off night Friday when a blister hurt his feel on his slider and he got roughed up for six earned runs and four extra-base hits by a potent Texas Tech. But Pierce reassured that his top gun has dealt with the blister issue all season. Stevens has tremendous accuracy but walked one and hit two batters Saturday.

Ty Madden, who has been dominant this season, struggled Friday in the loss to Texas Tech as a blister hurt his feel for his slider.

At some point, the wheels are going to fall off or get a little wobbly.

And now Texas is more than a little motivated to sustain what has been an ultrasuccessful season to this point. 

And consider the Longhorn lineup late in Saturday's game included five freshmen and two sophomores with five of the underclassmen every-day starters.

The Longhorns have to prove they have the urgency of the 2014 edition, which topped Houston, thanks to the gift of hosting privileges in a superregional, and then reached the College World Series semifinals with three consecutive wins before bowing out against eventual champion Vanderbilt.

But that Texas team was offensively challenged and finished a lowly fifth in the Big 12 with a 13-11 record before catching fire in June.

This Longhorn squad has been on fire almost from the minute it left Globe Life Field in Arlington after getting pummeled by the cream of the SEC crop.

It has more than atoned ever since. 

Riding Madden, finding power sources up and down the lineup as it did Friday with homers from its leadoff hitter Antico and No. 9 hitter in the order, shortstop Trey Faltine, playing its trademark quality defense, discovering freshman and newcomer talent such as second baseman Mitchell Daly, thunder bat Ivan Melendez — who homered Saturday — and Antico in center, Texas has put together an incredible run since late February. 

In doing so, it has stamped itself as one of the clear top eight national seeds capable of making a deep run in the postseason and almost certainly hosting a regional at a place where the Horns are a dominant 23-3.

A Texas loss or two to Texas Tech? Those are an inevitable hiccup that ultimately snags every baseball team. But this is a Longhorn team you can count on.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Antico said, “but we’re on our way.”