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As Big 12 race heats up, Texas baseball no longer viewing its young relievers as freshmen

Texas catcher Silas Ardoin and pitcher Tanner Witt celebrate a win over Sam Houston State in Austin on March 9. The Longhorns are relying on a handful of talented young pitchers this season; Texas has the Big 12's best team ERA.

As May approaches, there are a dozen baseball games left on Texas' regular-season schedule.pi

Most of those games are of import. Eleventh-ranked Texas Tech (28-10) is in town for a series this weekend. The third-ranked Longhorns (34-9) must also play six times against No. 5 TCU (30-10) and West Virginia (15-18).

Both Texas and TCU are 12-3 in Big 12 play. Texas Tech is the conference's third-place team, but the Red Raiders are trailing the Longhorns and Horned Frogs by four games.

"We have our ups and downs and we've got things we need to sort out," Texas pitcher Ty Madden said. "I think when things are put together, this team is something special and people need to watch out for the Horns."

Texas enters this weekend with a Big 12-leading ERA of 2.87 that ranks sixth nationally. The Longhorns also have a top-10 WHIP of 1.18. 

A quartet of starting pitchers has led the charge. Madden has compiled a 1.68 ERA over 64 1/3 innings. Tristan Stevens (2.74 ERA over 62 1/3 innings), Pete Hansen (2.19 ERA over 49 1/3 innings) and Kolby Kubichek (3.26 ERA over 47 innings) have also been tough to score against. Both Madden and Stevens have won at least one of the Big 12's weekly pitching awards.

Following a seven-inning, six-hit outing against Nevada on April 14, Hansen was asked if the success of the starting pitchers was simply a matter of iron sharpening iron. "That's the dynamic, that's what we have right now," he said. "It's just really fun to be a part of this team and watch these guys go out and compete."

This is Stevens' fourth year on campus. Madden and Kubichek are redshirt sophomores. As a freshman during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Hansen was one of eight Division I pitchers with a 0.00 ERA.

Those known commodities have been backed by a handful of fresh faces this season. Among the top options out of the bullpen are three true freshmen.

Nine of UT's 10 saves have been earned by Aaron Nixon (five), Tanner Witt (three) and Lucas Gordon (one). Over 15 conference games, Texas has needed 45 2/3 innings from its bullpen. Those freshmen have worked 63.5% of those innings.

On Thursday, Madden referred to Nixon as "a straight bulldog" and surmised that Gordon was clearly gaining confidence on the mound. He referred to Witt as a younger — yet more athletic — version of himself.

"I think when you look at their age and the high-intensity innings in the Big 12, I think they've been outstanding. I also think they need to get better," UT coach David Pierce said. "Once they get to this point of the year, I quit looking at them as freshmen. We have to start looking at them as the back-end guys for our bullpen."

During a 2018 season in which Texas won the Big 12's championship and reached the College World Series, Pierce relied on a veteran bullpen. Andy McGuire, who led the team in saves, and left-hander Josh Sawyer both made their collegiate debuts in 2014. Parker Joe Robinson was a redshirt junior. Junior starters Nolan Kingham and Chase Shugart also combined for five saves that year.

Three years later, how have these younger relievers gained Pierce's trust? The fifth-year Texas coach noted that all three freshmen have big-game experience with USA Baseball.

"Their makeup and mentality is right," Pierce said. "That's the piece that builds the trust for me is that every time I send them out there, I don't feel like they're going to be overwhelmed at all."

This weekend, UT's young relievers may get a chance to introduce themselves to a Texas Tech offense that's scoring 7.8 runs per game. The Red Raiders have hit a conference-high 59 homers.

Texas Tech has scored double-digit runs in 11 of its games. Oklahoma State is the only team that has shutout the Red Raiders.