Good Bull Hunting: How would you sum up the 2014 season for Texas Baseball? After a 2 year hiatus from the NCAA postseason, y'all are back in the field this year. Does that automatically qualify the season as an acceptable one?
Abram Orlansky: No, I don't think it does. It qualifies the season as an improvement, and even a non-disaster. After two straight indisputable disasters, I suppose we should be pleased. There is also the fact that this is an extremely young team (at least among position players), and as such making the Tourney as a two-seed that was on the borderline of hosting a regional should by all rights be seen as acceptable.
But. What can only be described as a multi-sport renaissance for UT in the first decade of this century has been followed by a few mediocre years across the board. I, and many other Texas fans, are hungry for excellence. The football team may well be on their way to getting back there, but a new coach will need some time. The basketball team is poised for a great run in 2014-15, but we haven't actually seen a dominant Texas squad in awhile. Baseball is supposed to be our fallback, the sport we can always count on being in the national conversation.
I know how that sounds, and to Aggie eyes it will assuredly read like typical t-sip entitlement. I hope it doesn't completely come off that way. I'm not saying Texas has to be excellent because we're Texas; rather, after experiencing excellence for several years, you want more excellence no matter what school you root for. Is it fair to lay all that at the feet of Augie Garrido and his baseball program? Obviously no. But, fairly or unfairly (definitely the latter), my final analysis of this season will rest on what happens this weekend. Getting in as a 2-seed, going on the road, and advancing to the second weekend? Acceptable and successful. Going 0-2? Not so much.
Jeff Asher: In our season preview I said this season would be acceptable if Texas either hosted or positioned itself to be a dangerous 2-seed somewhere. It's not ideal, but the Horns have accomplished the latter so it's an acceptable season in my book. Had Texas struggled out of the gate, gotten hot at the end of the year and just missed a hosting gig I would've called it a successful improvement and been happy with whatever happened in the tourney. But that's not what happened. Texas came out of the gate hot, lost to Kansas, got red hot for three series to the point that they were considered a possible overall #1 seed and then the bottom fell out. The Horns managed to maintain some dignity towards the end of the year but with their resume, RPI and SoS there is no reason Texas shouldn't be hosting. Just barely breaking .500 in conference play doomed what could've been an amazing regular season.
Abram and I must've gone back and forth 100 times this year about whether Augie should be asked to retire after this year. I'm not sure he's done enough in 2014 to make a strongly encouraged retirement a bad idea, but he also has done enough in 2014 to coach again in 2015 if he wants.
All of that having been said, this season reminds me a lot of the 2008 Texas baseball season (I'm sure all of your readers will know what I'm talking about). Texas finished as a 2-seed against Rice that year and didn't make it out of the regional. What they did accomplish was setting the foundation for a great freshman class to break out from 2009-2011 which included two CWS appearances, nearly winning it all in 2009 and getting a crappy super regional draw against TCU in 2010 that prevented three CWS appearances in three years. I guess that's the long way of saying this season is only acceptable if it builds to something in 2015 and 2016. If this is the best Augie can do then it may be time to start planning a retirement party. We'll need lots of booze.
GBH: Taking a quick look at Texas' stats for this season, it isn't very pretty from an offensive standpoint. Y'all averaged a little over 4.5 runs per game, and have the second lowest batting average in the Big 12. Can you give us an idea of what to expect from the Longhorns at the plate? And are there any guys on the roster we should be particularly concerned about?
JA: The basic stats are correct that this team is average at best offensively, but they actually go from below average to above average when they get out of Disch Falk Field. I wrote about this a few weeks ago in the most unfortunately named post I've ever written, but Texas scores when they get away from Austin and into more manageable parks. They've only lost one road series all year and that was a series where they played very poorly in the field and were missing Dillon Peters (West Virginia). If you go into the game expecting to see a Texas team that can't hit for crap you may not get it (of course they've laid plenty of clunkers on the road too).
Mark Payton is the easy answer on biggest offensive threat but he struggled mightily in conference play (.247 average) until the conference tournament when he lit it up. Payton recently set the Big 12 record for consecutive games reaching base at 95, so even when he's not hitting he's a real threat on the bases. There may be hotter hitters, but for my money the two most fun hitters to watch on this team are freshman Tres Barrera and sophomore Ben Johnson. Barrera was hitting about .130 until midseason when the light turned on and he went on a tear. The freshman finished fifth in conference play in runs scored and second in homers (5) despite playing half his games at Disch Falk. The other guy, Johnson, hasn't been as hot but has serious speed and power. He hit 6 home runs all year and can absolutely fly on the base paths (20-20 stolen bases). He does strike out a bunch but getting him out ahead of Payton and Barrera will be critical for the Ags.
AO: I agree with everything Jeff said, and will only add that Roger Clemens' kid, Kacy Clemens, could be an X factor in the game and weekend. The freshman first baseman doesn't have eye-popping numbers, but he has come through with clutch hits on numerous occasions for the Longhorns this year--most recently tallying all three RBI in Texas' 3-0 win over Okie State in the conference tournament. He's the kind of guy whom Aggie pitchers may have a tendency to overlook because of his pedestrian numbers and low spot in the batting order, but if they throw him a mistake pitch he has the ability to make it hurt.
GBH: On the flip side, the pitching seems to be the strong point for Texas this season. Coming into the weekend I was expecting that we'd see Dillon Peters, but Wednesday brought news that Nathan Thornhill would be starting and then eventually word came out that Peters would miss the postseason with an elbow injury. First, what can the Aggies expect from Thornhill - who appears to have excelled moving from closer to starter - and what's the best approach to have success against him? And what does Peters' injury mean for your team's chances in the postseason as a whole?
JA: Thornhill's a fourth year pitcher who started the year disastrously as the closer before moving into a dominant role as the Sunday starter. He doesn't walk as many as his stats might indicate thanks to some early wildness as the closer. Thornhill won't strike out a ton but he doesn't usually give up a ton of hits either. Oklahoma State rocked Thornhill in the regular season but he's only given up 13 hits and no earned runs in his last three starts. Augie's rolling the dice a bit here as he's not as good as Peters or French when they're on, but he's not your typical Sunday starter either. If Peters and French are 1 and 1A then Thornhill's like 1.5. I bet he'd be the Friday starter on half the tournament field's teams.
As far as what to expect with Thornhill, he'll still walk some people and give up a few hits that'll put him in an early jam or two. Your best chance of getting to him is to not let him out of the early trouble and get into a rhythm. He rarely goes super late into games, though he threw a complete game against Oklahoma in 96 pitches and that was with a several hour rain delay! If he's on his game then you'd best hope to hold down the Texas offense until you can get him out in the 6th or 7th and then do your damage against Morgan Cooper or John Curtiss.
What this does to this team's chances in the postseason is it removes all of the margin for error. It doesn't do a whole heckuva lot to today's game or tomorrow's game because a reasonable argument for French and Thornhill starting those two games could've been made. But unless Texas wins those two games I don't see them escaping the regional. Lukas Schiraldi is our fourth starter and he's been occasionally excellent but usually average (at best). Schiraldi did come into Reckling Park and beat Rice a few months ago, so it's not like he couldn't be the winning pitcher of a deciding third game.
One thing to note, Texas played their absolute worst series of the year the one time Peters didn't pitch. West Virginia is the only non-tournament team to beat Texas in a series and they crushed Schiraldi on Sunday to the tune of a 12-6 game.
AO: I can't add much to Jeff's comprehensive answer, but I'd emphasize two things. First, Thornhill does tend to go 5-6 innings at a maximum. The way he's throwing, I'd be surprised to see A&M get more than one or two runs while Thornhill is in the game. But once you get to the 'pen, as tired as they seem to be, the Aggies will have some chances. So, if I'm Rob Childress, I'm spending the next day pounding into my players' skulls that they absolutely have to be patient and force Thornhill to throw plenty of pitches. If they're jumping on early pitches and letting Thornhill get out of innings with 10-15 pitches, I like Texas' chances.
Second, I can't stress enough how right Jeff is about the margin for error. He covered what it means for the regional, but let's say the Longhorns do manage to advance. Then they'll have to win a three-game series, almost certainly on the road at either LSU or Houston (of course, now that I said that, Bryant or Southeastern Louisiana will assuredly win the Baton Rouge regional). Which brings me back to West Virginia. It's certainly possible that Schiraldi could put the team on his back and win a clinching rubber game to get to Omaha, but it's clear that Texas' more likely path to winning a super regional is to take the first two games.
GBH: In your opinion, with the team Texas has this season, how important is it to win this first game against A&M on Friday afternoon? In other words, how confident would you be about the Longhorns' ability to come out of the loser's side of the regional and advance should the Aggies win on Friday?
JA: I think it's absolutely essential that Texas wins this game. Only a few of these guys have ever played in a postseason game and getting off on the right foot would be huge. This is a team that excels when everybody's doing their assigned job as they did in the first two games of the Big 12 tournament (8-3 and 3-0 wins over Tech and Okie State). They struggle when folks are asked to improvise like in their last two games of the Big 12 tournament when John Curtiss came in to close in the 7th inning and Parker French was asked to close in the 8th (lost both games).
I'm guessing it'll be Dillon Peters in game one but it could really be Peters, French or Nathan Thornhill. They're all capable of shutting anybody down but they've also all been shelled at some point this season. This team plays best when it grabs an early lead and holds on for dear life with its elite pitching. Going through the loser's bracket is the opposite of that. If Texas can win game one they'd likely get to face a Rice team they've beaten twice this year in a park in which they've won. If Texas loses to A&M then they'd have to win four straight. Maybe they can improvise four straight wins but it seems unlikely given the inconsistency we've seen all season from the Horns.
AO: All in-depth analysis aside, I think that last point is the crucial one. The last time Texas won four straight games was April 11-15, with a road sweep of Oklahoma and a home win over UT-Arlington. That was a long time ago, and it was immediately followed by a downward spiral including getting swept at home by TCU, losing 2 of 3 at home to Okie State, and losing 2 of 3 at West By-God Virginia. I just don't see UT putting together 4 straight wins with their backs against the wall, but I could see them advancing out of the weekend with an opening win. So it makes all the difference in my mind.
GBH: What are the keys to Friday's game against A&M and for the rest of the regional for Texas? And if you had to predict, how do you see this first game and the regional playing out?
AO: I think the keys are to hit the ball as well as they have in their best games on the road, get good starts out of their pitching, and to avoid the kinds of mental mistakes that young teams can fall prey to in the postseason. Against A&M specifically, I think Texas needs to understand it has the pitching advantage and do what it can to put 3-4 runs on the board, which I believe will be enough to win what I expect will be a low-scoring affair.
Behind Thornhill, I do think Texas will eke out an opening victory over the Aggies on Friday. I see Rice beating up on George Mason. In the winner's bracklet, Texas will suddenly find themselves playing Rice in Houston--a situation in which the Longhorns are 2-0 this season. Behind French, I like Texas' chances against the Owls. A&M takes down George Mason to eliminate them, and then steps on Rice's dreams with another elimination game win. That leaves A&M needing to beat Texas twice with their 4th and 5th starters against Texas' 4th (the solid Lukas Schiraldi). Texas would have the advantage there, and while they may well blow it just as they did in OKC, I don't think so. The Longhorns earn a trip to Baton Rouge next weekend, which looks like a buzzsaw now that LSU is hitting the ball for the first time all year.
JA: I think the Texas defense is the x-factor for this game. If the Texas defense puts up a zero in the error column then the Horns will be extremely difficult to beat without dominant pitching. A&M is probably pretty comparable to West Virginia, a team that beat Texas in a series last month thanks to eight Texas errors in two losses. If Texas is a disaster in the field, as they've been from time to time, then A&M could get an easy win.
As much as I want to see Texas playing in Baton Rouge I just can't see it happening. If this team played to its potential every game I think it'd be in Omaha. Their consistency has just been lacking for almost the entire year and I'd be willing to bet that inconsistency will be their downfall. I predict the Horns beat A&M twice and Rice once but don't have the guns to overcome their own deficiencies.
I'm tired of feeling silly about optimistic predictions, I want to feel dumb for being a pessimist for once.