Bohls: Faltine paces Texas' terrific defense to another victory
- Shortstop Trey Faltine came to Texas as a stud infielder-pitcher but has made huge strides.
- Zach Zubia was once regarded as a DH only but has emerged as an outstanding first baseman.
- In 52 games, Texas has played errorless ball in 21 of them and made just one error in another 22.
Texas flashed some serious leather Friday night.
I mean, really serious.
Like The Rock or Tom Cruise kind of leather.
So serious that it might be time to start talking about this smooth-fielding Longhorn infield as one of the best in school history.
Now, that could be a bit premature.
After all, shortstop Trey Faltine is just a redshirt freshman who was also a terrific pitcher in high school and is coming into form. Second baseman Mitchell Daly is a true freshman who was a four-year shortstop in high school and left as the best in Alabama. Junior third baseman Cam Williams hasn’t been here all that long after stops at Dallas Baptist and San Jacinto College and has made some highlight-reel plays.
And first baseman Zach Zubia was once regarded as a lead-footed designated hitter who the coaching staff prayed wouldn’t be too big a liability.
Liability? Heck, he’s liable to be the All-Big 12 first baseman, hitting .304 with nine homers and making just two errors.
Zubia has played so brilliantly there that he might have reached the Kacey Clemens level for all the spectacular plays he’s made. Of course, he is a former quarterback, too.
“When he came in, I mean even as a sophomore or junior, I don't know if he'll ever do anything but DH,” head coach David Pierce said of Zubia, “but the kid is absolutely committed to (improving) his body; his footwork is better. He’s pretty fearless. He just grinds, and it's fun to watch his growth, too.”
But Faltine might be the gold standard at shortstop. As if his glove work and range weren’t spectacular enough, he smashed a pair of home runs Friday night, his fourth and fifth of the season, in a 14-3 beatdown of West Virginia to bring Texas within a single victory Saturday of a 40-win season.
In truth, he is developing so rapidly after just a season and a third, thanks to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, that it’s feasible he could eventually leave here as one of the best shortstops, if not the best, the school has ever had.
He’s got no real weakness and can rival the smoothness and range that made Spike Owen a major-leaguer for 13 seasons and David Hamilton’s ability to go in the hole as well as charge the slow topper. And this school has had a bunch, including Kip Harkrider, Coby Kerlin and Michael Brumley.
And truthfully the Longhorn infield defense could have gone down almost as a footnote to an impressive rout in which the second-ranked Longhorns put up back-to-back five-run innings to support another masterful pitching performance from No. 2 starter Tristan Stevens.
Stevens certainly noticed.
“I know my defense is always going to be there for me because you know it’s the best in the country,” the junior right-hander said after eight strong innings. “So for me, it was just, let ’em put it in play, and I'll let my defense do the work.”
Did it ever.
Here’s how an early sequence went down:
Zubia went to his left, knocked down a vicious bolt off the bat of Nathan Blasick in foul territory, scrambled and tossed the ball to Stevens covering first base for the out. The play saved two runs, maybe more.
Faltine applied the tag on Braden Barry after the West Virginia leadoff man singled and stole second, and he kept his glove on the Mountaineer long enough so that when Barry’s slide pulled him ever so slightly off the bag, he was out on the replay. One out later, Faltine ranged far to his left, almost behind Williams’ normal third base positioning, to field Tyler Doanes’ grounder in the hole and pegged a throw to first to end the threat.
With a man on first, Matt McCormick grounded a ball to the right side. Daly fielded it cleanly, pivoted quickly and threw a dart to Faltine for the start of a 4-6-3 double play. Made it look easy, as they do most of the time.
And all that action was before the third inning ended.
There was more to follow, but that’s been the norm. And don’t forget some spectacular play by center fielder Mike Antico, especially in the series victory over TCU two weeks ago, and Silas Ardoin’s top-notch catching. Corner outfielders Eric Kennedy and Doug Hodo III have also made stellar plays and thrown their bodies around, lunging for balls. Kennedy doesn’t have an error all year, and Hodo has just one.
But that’s what happens when you have the nation’s 14th-best fielding team. When Zubia was lifted late in the game, his replacement, middle infielder Murphy Stehly, made a tremendous scoop of a throw for an out.
Pitching and defense, of course, are Texas trademarks, and Pierce’s club has both in quantity and quality. And that makes the Longhorns a strong candidate for a College World Series run, especially if they can take what Pierce calls “a must-win” game Saturday for the series victory over West Virginia to keep the naysayers down, come super regional bid time.
In 52 games, Texas has played errorless ball 21 times, including Friday, and won 15 of those. In another 22, the Longhorns have committed just a single error and gone 18-4.
Mostly the sticky D starts with Faltine, who is an emerging star and has such good pop out of his wiry frame that he might be capable of double-digit home runs next season, although he says he’s more than content with singles and doubles. Never mind he's hitting only .242. That will come.
Some of the credit has to go to Texas volunteer coach Troy Tulowitzki, who has helped groom Faltine as well as the rest of the infield. Pierce joked that Faltine has almost shadowed the five-time All-Star shortstop and two-time Gold Glover all over the field.
“I give (Tulo) a lot of credit for the work he's putting in, not just with me, but the whole team,” said Faltine, who’s made just six errors this season. “It shows because Cam Williams and Zach are making great plays every night. He expects a lot out of us, and he always says defense doesn’t go in a slump. He holds us to a high standard.”
Pierce couldn’t be happier with the infield’s play but knows expectations and the pressure will only increase, especially with the postseason approaching next week in the Big 12 Tournament.
“The first thing about Trey is he loves the game and he loves to work,” Pierce said. “It's been awesome, what he can do with his range, and he can throw at different angles. He’s learned how to play on the run; he's learned how to go both to his left and right, move forward. It's just awesome to watch his development. So who knows on Trey? I think the sky's the limit.”
At a school like Texas, it almost always is.