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Getting To Know Texas Baseball

Zane Gurwitz's 2 RBI hit put Texas ahead of Oklahoma St. for good in the 8th inning of the Big XII Tournament Championship game.
Zane Gurwitz's 2 RBI hit put Texas ahead of Oklahoma St. for good in the 8th inning of the Big XII Tournament Championship game.
Photo via Texas Athletics

Oregon St. fans are generally well aware of what it means to take on the Texas Longhorns; the 2012 Alamo Bowl wasn't that long ago. Even when in a "down" year, which means a post-season contender vs. a national championship contender, Texas brings a lot of athletes to the contest, and a whole lot of fiercely loyal fan support.

And some long time fans recall iconic Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido from his CWS Championship and notable days a Fullerton St. before he began his 18 year stint as the skipper in Austin.

But Longhorn baseball isn't in the forefront of the average Pac-12 fans attentions normally, and though Texas advanced to the CWS last year, some pitching injuries and a mid-season slump left the Longhorns out of the post-season picture until they trampled through the Big XII Tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and a first game matchup in the Dallas Baptist Regional against Oregon St. (Beaver Nation fans who were at the Alamo Bowl will recall what it was like to be apart of one of the biggest road contingents ever for any Oregon St. event and still being outnumbered 5-1 on game day when taking on Texas within a short drive from Austin.)

But we don't really know much about a 30-25 team that had a sub-.500 season in the Big XII before they found their stride at the end of the season. So we got with Jeff Asher and Abram Orlansky, a couple of the baseball beat guys from Burnt Orange Nation, BTD's brother blog that covers Texas Athletics, and got a scouting report on Longhorn baseball.

BTD: Expectations are always high at Texas, but Longhorn fans have to be pretty happy about winning their way in with a Big XII Tournament win, and getting to stay close to home. Given how the season went, things are looking as good as it could. What kind of Texas team do you think is Oregon State going to encounter? One that surprised you with their late surge? Or is this the Longhorn team you have been expecting to emerge at some point all along?

Jeff: Strange as it may sound, I think Oregon State will see a Texas team playing loose and free like they have nothing to lose. Texas made the tournament and won't have to endure a miserable offseason of "will Augie stay or go" no matter what happens in Dallas. The Horns won't be uptight because they're underdogs and also don't have to face the fear of losing to a traditional rival had they been sent to Rice (had they hosted) or College Station. The team we've seen in the last two weeks looks a lot like the team that nearly won a title last year, solid pitching, good defense and just enough offense. If that team shows up then watch out. If it's all an illusion thanks to a bunch of games against Baylor then I have no idea what Texas team we'll see.

Abram: If you go back and read our season previews, it should be clear that the answer is that this recent run is reflective of the quality of team we expected to see when 2015 began. We thought it would be because the bats were excellent and the pitching good enough, but instead the 6-of-7 wins to finish the season was achieved in the opposite manner--which, frankly we're more comfortable with as Texas fans. If the young arms (see Jeff's answer below) stay hot in Dallas, then Texas should continue to be dangerous. Last season, it was the unexpected emergence of Chad Hollingsworth that propelled Texas past A&M at the Houston Regional and past UC Irvine in Omaha; we're hoping Ty Culbreth and/or Kyle Johnston can step into that role this weekend, a marginal player for the regular season who suddenly dominates in the postseason.

BTD: When Texas plays their best, and wins the most, how do they do it? Do they get off to good starts, gradually assert themselves, or win with strong play in the later innings?

Jeff: The Texas win over Baylor on Thursday in the Big 12 Tournament was the ideal Texas win. The Horns got a two run homer in the first inning by Tres Barrera, constantly put men on base until Brooks Marlow came through with a two out two RBI single late in the game and got sublime pitching from freshman Conner Mayes. Obviously the Horns will probably win if Texas' starter throws a complete game shutout (how's that for hedging your bets?), but Texas is much more likely to win a game when it has an early lead and a solid start. Don't look for a big late inning comeback from this squad which is what made Sunday's win over the other OSU so nice.

Abram: I'll just add that, unlike your average Texas team heading into the Tournament, I don't know that this group has notched enough wins to have a true "winning identity." Certainly jumping out to an early lead and getting a quality start on the hill is an ideal way to win and has been the M.O. for years, but the 2015 team hasn't been consistent enough to say that's the way we usually get wins. This is a weird situation; a loss on Sunday in a game Texas trailed 2-1 late, and we wouldn't even be having this discussion. So I think if Texas is going to make an improbable run, it's going to have more to do with devil magic than any one way of getting wins--late comebacks, dominant pitching performances, well-timed home runs. We'll need it all.

BTD: Texas' overall pitching staff stats look really good, perhaps moreso than what the starting pitching would suggest. Is it correct to expect the Longhorns to use a series of arms to win most games? And they have used multiple starters in first games of series. Will it be Parker French Friday, or might it be someone else?

Jeff: Would it surprise you to learn only four pitchers pitched in the Big 12 tournament? Texas got insanely good starts from Parker French (a known ace), junior Ty Culbreth (a great bullpen arm making starts for the first time late in the year), freshman Conner Mayes (another bullpen arm until recently) and freshman Kyle Johnston (a fireballer who started as the closer, was a midweek starter and now does a bit of everything). The starting rotation has basically been forced to start over over the second half of the year thanks to arm injuries to two of the three weekend starters. Those guys took some lumps against TCU and Texas Tech but they also pitched Texas into the postseason last weekend.

I'd expect to see French on Friday but he threw 127 pitches last Wednesday then was brought in as a reliever on Sunday. He has been durable for four years at Texas and is far and away the most reliable starter on the team. If French doesn't pitch then I'd bet it'll be Culbreth. He'd be making just his fifth career start but he pitched out of the 'pen in Omaha last year and shouldn't be scared.

One of my chief complaints this season has been their lack of bullpen usage. You want your manager to see danger two steps ahead and act accordingly. Texas has, at times, only brought in relievers when it's about to be too late. Take the Sunday game against Oklahoma State. Johnston pitched into the seventh inning of a 1-1 game. He leads off that inning with a walk and a HBP, so Texas brings in French (who threw nearly 130 pitches on Wednesday). French gives up a run but gets out of the jam so back he comes for the 8th. The Horns are suddenly up 6-2 but it takes an error and two rocket singles to replace him with senior Kirby Bellow. The same thing happened to Mayes in his Saturday start. Kid is up around 110 pitches with Texas leading 3-0 in the 9th and puts two men on with one out. Does Texas replace him? Of course not. Does he give up a game tying three run homer? Of course.

To sum up, Texas has some real quality arms but the bullpen usage at times has been...quirky.

Abram: Again, adding much to that would be silly but I'll spell it out less diplomatically than Jeff: many times throughout this season, Augie Garrido has made inexplicably poor decisions with his pitching staff. Yes, we got 3 straight complete games in the Big 12 Tournament but the second win (the winner's bracket game against Baylor) should not have been so, and Garrido's leaving Culbreth in almost cost Texas the game and likely the season.

BTD: Ben Johnson is the only hitter above .300 in the usual Texas starting lineup, but Tres Barrera has 9 homers and 20 extra base hits. Collin Shaw matches Barrera with 32 RBIs, and 4 players have at least 30. How will the Longhorns attack the Beavers at the plate?

Jeff: Texas will try to get men on base, bunt them over and pray for the timely hit or error. The Horns were an offensive powerhouse early in the season but the entire team slumped for a month before picking it up at the end of the season. One name to look out for is freshman Joe Baker. He's a singles machine who didn't start until the middle of the season, but I like him a lot. Texas really has a lineup full of guys who should be hitting .280-.300 but many of them struggled this year. Texas can hit the long ball and Dallas Baptist appears to play in a hitter friendly park, so don't count that out.

Abram: With bunts. We will attack you with bunts. Jeff is right that there is some pop in this lineup, and to Garrido's credit he has cut down on the (sometimes seemingly mindless) smallball approach that he had become known for in response to that increased power. But still, we're going to bunt. And based on your answers to our questions, Oregon State will bunt a lot too. Meaning each team will look across the field at an orange-and-white foe who can't stop bunting and wonder, "am I in the Twilight Zone?"

BTD: As Robert and I both noted in answering your questions, we aren't big on predicting scores, so who/what are your key indicators for the game? What things will you watch for that will nearly guarantee a Texas win? What are your red flags that signal the Longhorns are in trouble if they appear?

Jeff: I'm not a fan of predicting scores either, so that's good all around! That first inning is so critical. The Horns led off last year's regional game with Texas A&M with a home run and it set the stage for a 7-1 victory. I could envision Texas winning this regional which is really all you can ask for when your team goes 30-25 and barely makes the tournament.

Abram: The first key indicator for the opening game will be how sharp the Texas starter looks early, whether it's French or someone else. I don't anticipate the Horns scoring much against Andrew Moore, so if the Texas starter is a bit wobbly we could be in trouble. Like Jeff, though, my money would be on French to start despite his high pitch count last week. As he has shown consistently throughout his career in Austin, that guy is a fighter--which brings me to my other key point. This feels weird to type because I am a firm believer in the modern, sabermetrics approach to baseball and don't tend to put much stock in intangibles. But at the same time, it's undeniable that A) college baseball is different, and B) postseason baseball is different. SO: the other key factor is emotional leadership. Whether he's pitching Friday or saved for Saturday, this squad feeds off of French's energy and will need the senior to be vocal and excited. I don't think he'll disappoint.

Thanks, guys; that's great intel!

Looking forward to an interesting game on Friday, and very possibly a rematch (or two) before the weekend in Dallas is over.