Despite the up-and-down, nearly catastrophic midweek that followed being swept by Texas Tech, David Pierce still feels like he has a good baseball team. He also, on Thursday, showed accountability for the loss at Texas State, and spoke about building the culture at Texas.
This weekend, the Longhorns (14-10, 0-3) host Kansas State (15-6, 0-0) in a series they desperately need to win.
PROJECTED PITCHING ROTATION (all games televised on Longhorn Network)
FRIDAY (6:30 p.m.)
—KSU RHP Justin Heskett (2-1, 2.60) vs. RHP Nolan Kingham (2-2, 0.95)
SATURDAY (4:00 p.m.)—KSU LHP Parker Rigler (2-1, 2.03) vs. RHP Morgan Cooper (2-1, 2.05)
SUNDAY (1:00 p.m.)—KSU RHP Brogan Heinen (1-1, 3.96) vs. RHP Blair Henley (2-2, 4.38)
SCOUTING KANSAS STATE
Pierce described Kansas State as an "offensive" club, and rightfully so. The Wildcats have 24 homers, and 15, five each, come from three hitters - Jake Scudder, Steve Serratore, and Quintin Crandall. Kansas State also has 40 doubles, eight triples, and is 26-of-31 on stolen base attempts.
How much of the team slash line of .296/.377/.472 is inflated by 76 runs in five games against Northwestern State and Eastern Illinois? We'll find out. Texas can't afford to do what it has done too much of recently, which is being forced to throw fastballs in fastball counts due to the inability to throw offspeed pitches early or in backwards counts.
On the mound, Kansas State's trio of starters has battled control issues at times, but it has also missed bats at a fairly decent rate. Defensively, the Wildcats are fielding .968, which has to be a concern for them.
PIERCE SHOWS ACCOUNTABILITY
Late in the game at Texas State, Pierce decided to insert Kyle Johnston into the ninth inning with a 10-7 lead. The inning prior, Beau Ridgeway threw just seven pitches to get out of a jam. The move backfired. Johnston issued a four-pitch walk to begin the inning, and his inability to throw strikes led to Texas State tying the game to force extra innings, a game it won in the 10th inning.
"Honestly, the biggest question mark that I kick myself about was Tuesday night when you have a hot hand, I learned a long time ago, when you have a hot hand, you stick with it. Beau Ridgeway threw seven pitches in the eighth inning. With a three-run lead, you stay with him, you win the game, and then you have an opportunity to get your other guy right," said Pierce. "You don’t get guys right in the ninth inning.
The Texas head coach continued.
"We had great discussions, Kyle and I, and he was very confident. It’s the only reason why I stayed with him. There’s one other issue in that scenario is there’s a lot of ground balls that Beau gives up. His defense has been superb for him. The field conditions (in one instance, a routine ground ball bounced over the head of Bret Boswell because of the poor playing conditions; Ridgeway is sinkerball pitcher) and the way they were swinging the bat that was just a vision that we’re going to go with stuff here, and it just didn’t work out."
Pierce made reference to the thought-process of electing to use swing and miss stuff instead of the sinker pitcher because Texas State was putting the ball in play often and ground balls were an adventure. In hindsight, he wished he'd stuck with Ridgeway and obeyed the old rule.
The Texas bullpen is still evolving, and is searching for reliable arms in the backend to join Ridgeway.
"So yeah, you always kick yourself, but when you try to coordinate your bullpen it usually just continues to evolve. So, it is evolving. We saw an emergence of Jon Malmin last night (Wednesday) that we knew he could do. If you noticed watching the game in the first inning he was a little bit hesitate. After he got out of that, he gained more and more confidence. It’s the reason why he stayed in the game."
In order for Texas to get better results on the mound, it must start throwing offspeed stuff for a strike more consistently so lineups can't sit fastball. Any lineup can hit a fastball, especially one that lacks command, when it knows the heater is coming.
"We have to continue to build confidence so guys go out and trust themselves. We’ve given up a lot of hits in the last three or four games. Well, if you’re only throwing the fastball behind in counts that’s going to happen so we have to be able to throw the fastball on both sides of the plate. We have to be able to throw the breaking ball or offspeed pitch behind or early in counts and we haven’t been doing a good job of that. That’s why we’re giving up hits. We have to get back to the drawing board and really get back to each individual. It’s not a group thing; it’s coaching each individual guy and so that’s where we are."
As for Johnston, who has struggled mightily in the backend of games recently, he was scheduled to throw a bullpen yesterday, and it was designed to get him back to the basics and build confidence.
"He’s going to have a short outing today as far as a bullpen session to just slow things down, get him back to 50 percent, really get him familiar with his own body and understanding awareness of his body and then build that up," Pierce said on Thursday. "Hopefully, he’s available Saturday and Sunday. We’ll take a look at it. Potentially, he goes and gets a midweek start. We’ll get him right. It starts with his mind and he understands that he’s fighting some confidence issues right now… all of them are willing to work at it, and he’s no different."
University of Texas
CULTURE STILL BEING ESTABLISHED, AND PIERCE SENT A CLEAR MESSAGE
After hitting a homer, Ryan Reynolds squared another pitch up hard. Unfortunately, he hit it right at an infielder, which resulted in a double play. The freshman loafed down the line out of frustration. The next inning, he was replaced.
"Ryan was frustrated. When you hit into a ground ball double play, you have to run hard. He’s already apologize to his teammates and to me, so it’s something that as you mature as a player there are things we expect and that’s one of those expectations," said Pierce. "That’s the only reason why he was pulled, and he’ll never do it again. Sometimes it’s just what you have to do to continue to build the culture we want and he’s a very valuable player for us. But at the same time, none of us are above hustling every play."
TEXAS IS A PRETTY GOOD TEAM, BUT NOT AN ELITE TEAM
Instead of sulking over being swept to open conference play, Pierce viewed the series differently. Texas lost 2-1 in back-to-back games, and then 8-5 in the series finale. There wasn't a lot of separation between the two teams.
"I’ll tell you this: The Tech series really says we’re a pretty good team but we’re not an elite team yet. Texas State was an emotional comeback where we didn’t get it done on the backend, but for the most part the players are playing the right way," he stated. "Last night (UTRGV game) you can’t contribute to the team doing anything work. We just had a rough start with the starting pitcher. That’s how you have to view it, and I thought they did a great job viewing that with their at-bats moving forward because it doesn’t matter who you’re playing that deficit is hard to come back from. Because as a hitter there’s a little frustration so now you maybe go outside the zone because of frustration sometimes because you’re trying to get them all back. "
Pierce continued about the maturity his team showed in erasing a 7-0 first-inning deficit, and evaluating his team in what he refers to as the "moment of truth" instances in close games.
"I thought we were very mature in the way we handled things coming back last night. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing that’s tough to do. I really remind them much more about playing the game the right way, and that moment of truth. If you look at the series against Tech, you could probably takes five times of the game and if that flips the other way, we win the ball game. So, making them understand that we’re that close, but we have to continue to understand that we have to get things done in those situations. I call it the moment of truth – when the game is on the line, are we elevating, staying the same, or are we pressing? And that’s where you grow as a player."
JOHN GUTIERREZ - AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Many Texas fans have wondering why Michael McCann isn't getting more time behind the plate. It sounds like his playing time will increase, which is more the result of getting more comfortable handling harder-throwing, "stuff" pitchers instead of his great start to the season offensively.
"I think Michael McCann exemplifies the energy and effort we’re talking about every single day. He’s been a self-made guy, very coachable. He’s made fast improvements. So, he’s positioned himself to play more and get more time than he has in the past. And he's swinging such a good, hot bat. He has quality at-bats and doesn’t give them away. Michael Cantu is a veteran that offers great defense that has power potential that were still working on tapping into because he can hit. It just hasn’t worked out for him yet. As we’re trying to get him better offensively, we have to reward McCann for his success.
The Texas head coach elaborated, making the point of McCann's abilities defensively.
"Yeah, he’s going to get more opportunities because he’s positioned himself to do that. The thing is, Cantu has had the ability to catch all our guys, stuff guys or not. That’s something that’s always been our concern with McCann, but he’s getting more and more confident and more comfortable catching whoeer we throw. Yes, he’ll have more opportunities."
Texas knows it needs to win the series this weekend, and has normally fared well offensively against starting pitching that isn't going to make a lot of money soon. Kansas State's defense could be an issue all season, and if Texas can simply get something consistent out of the bullpen, it should win two of three this weekend.