There is an overused phrase out there about death and taxes. I’m going to choose to be part of the solution rather than the problem, so I’ll avoid using it here. But if I were to use the phrase, I would have included a line in there about Texas Longhorns pitching.
In any given year, no matter if they have a veteran staff, a young staff, or an amalgamation of parts you’re not sure will fit together, you just know that Texas will find a way to put an elite pitching staff on the field. The last several years have been evidence of that. In 2012 and 2013, years in which they missed the postseason altogether, they still had pretty good pitching staffs. And in 2014, they rode an outstanding staff all the way to the College World Series, even with an offense that was inconsistent.
Assuming that much, then, it was understandable that there was a lot of buzz around this Longhorns team. If anything, their offense was their strength heading into 2015. They returned a great deal of their top performers from last year, save for Mark Payton, and the roles on their pitching staff were mostly up in the air. The prevailing thought was that if the offense could carry the load early in the season while the staff was still shaking out, the Longhorns would be nearly unstoppable by the end of the season.
For a few weeks, it looked like everything was going according to plan. Texas put together some impressive weekends in splitting with Rice on the road, dominating a sweep against Minnesota, and splitting with Stanford on the road. Perhaps more importantly, the offense looked like a potential juggernaut at times. They scored nine in the second game with Rice (albeit in a loss), fourteen in a midweek game against UTSA, thirteen in the opener against Minnesota, eight in the finale against Minnesota, and twelve in the finale against Stanford. Their top contributors were a nice mix of returning players (Ben Johnson, Tres Barrera, Collin Shaw) and new faces (Bret Boswell, Michael Cantu).
On the mound, they were dealing with growing pains, but for every rough start like Kacy Clemens’ against Rice (3 IP, 8 ER), they would get one like Josh Sawyer’s or Clemens’ against Minnesota (both 5 IP, 0 ER). With the offense going like it was, though, you figured they would be able to take the good with the bad.
Over the last few weeks, however, things have taken a turn in Austin, as the offense has started to go flat. Truth be told, it really seemed to start in their home weekend against San Diego. Friday and Saturday of that series were both washed out, forcing the teams to play a rushed doubleheader on Sunday.
In that doubleheader, Texas scored a total of two runs in losing those games 3-1 and 6-1. Still, there was enough evidence that these results were little more than a fluke. For starters, weather-affected series are always crapshoots that can get a little wonky and doubleheaders in weather-affected series are even worse. In those situations, you can often throw talent and records out because it ultimately comes down to who is up and ready to play after an entire weekend of sitting around waiting out the rain. Further, the Longhorns went out to Palo Alto the very next weekend and showed pretty well, including putting up 12 runs in a game. It looked like the USD series was a blip.
But the struggles have continued on the offensive side. They haven’t scored more than seven runs in any one game since that game against Stanford on March 8, and their offensive woes seem to have culminated in a series sweep at the hands of Nebraska this past weekend that saw Texas plate all of three runs total across the three games. Nebraska has a quality pitching staff, sure, but it didn’t matter who the Huskers put out there; they were throwing up zeroes against the UT offense.
As it stands now, they are hitting .252 as a team. Ben Johnson is clearly not part of the problem. He has a .383/.427/.600 slash line on the season. Tres Barrera has also been pretty good. He’s hitting .297 with a team-leading four homers. No one else is hitting better than .267, though, and there are a couple of guys that are really having trouble getting it going. C.J. Hinojosa, who was probably their second-best hitter last season behind Mark Payton, is hitting an even .200. Zane Gurwitz is just a touch better at .203.
Suddenly, they’re back to the tried and true formula of leaning on the pitching staff to carry the team through.
Finding out which two of Kacy Clemens (2-1, 3.66), Chad Hollingsworth (3-2, 4.36), or Josh Sawyer (2-1, 4.62) will file in behind the ever-steady Parker French (2-2, 2.16) in the weekend rotation is still a lingering question, but they’ve largely been able to play that by ear thanks to a bullpen that has gotten outstanding work from the likes of Connor Mayes (0.83), Travis Duke (1.23), Kirby Bellow (1.57, 3 SV), and Ty Culbreth (2.35, 3 SV). In particular, Mayes and Bellow have been crucial as guys who can not only come in and get out of jams, but can also be stretched out to throw multiple innings.
On one hand, it’s difficult to imagine this Longhorns team reaching their top goals without some vast improvement from their offensive attack. But then again, we’ve all read this script before and it usually ends with the Texas Longhorns being right back in the mix to get to Omaha.
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