Texas is about to enter its regular season stretch run. At 25-15 with a RPI of 37, the Longhorns aren’t in bad shape. But what they have is an opportunity to put themselves into good shape, and that needs to start this weekend in a three-game set at home versus New Orleans (19-18; 139 RPI).
With a 10-1 record and run-differential of +61, the Longhorns have shown growth as a team in midweek games. Last season, they finished 6-5 with a run-differential of +27.
“It definitely is,” responded David Pierce when asked if Texas’ record in midweek games is indicative of growth as a team. “It’s been something I harped on when I first got here. When kids realize they have an opportunity to go play competitive baseball and they relish that then that’s something that’s moving us in the right direction and creating a little more maturity.”
Texas could us more growth and more maturity, though.
Success in midweek games is playing a big role in 25 total wins in 2016 compared to 25 wins with 15 more to play plus a conference tournament in 2017. The next step for the Longhorns is to show that type of growth, execution, and maturity during weekend series, especially against a stronger Big 12 in 2017. Of Texas’ eight Big 12 losses, six have been by one run, and right now, that’s the difference between being in the conversation as a regional host and needing to make room for the postseason bubble in the clubhouse.
After the Longhorns blew a 3-0 lead, and a chance to win a pivotal road series at Baylor, in last Friday’s game, Pierce saw something he wants to see more of in Saturday’s series-finale. Texas again blew a lead, this time 3-2 in the ninth inning, but in the face of adversity in the form of being on the wrong end of a sweep, two Texas veteran players responded.
“They’re very eager, and it was in Kacy Clemens’ and Travis Jones’ eyes on Saturday,” Pierce responded when asked if his older players realize the opportunity ahead of them. “You could really see that… they didn’t feel like they had to do something extra, but they definitely felt like this was an important game. They had an edge about them, and I liked it. I liked the way they performed not only on the field, but their mentality that they carried into the dugout. We’re seeing that more and more where guys see that we’re right on the cusp of having an opportunity and they want to do everything possible of giving us that best chance of doing well the rest of the way in conference, competing in the Big 12 Championship, and having opportunities in the postseason.”
Jones competed at a very high level in the box, and worked a two-out walk when a 3-2 pitch missed, which allowed Clemens to smash a go-ahead two-run bomb in the 10th inning.
This type of season isn’t foreign to Pierce. In fact, it’s all he’s known as the head coach. Around this same time last season, Tulane was 23-13. It finished the regular season 14-4, removing any doubt that it was a postseason team. In 2015 after dropping a pivotal conference series against Houston, Tulane won four of its next five series. Following an unexpected series loss to Lamar at Sam Houston State in 2014, this was the time of year Pierce coached the Bearkats to a 14-1 regular season finish. Almost the exact same thing happened the season prior when Sam Houston State dropped a series to Oral Roberts before finishing the regular season 13-1.
“Honestly, the last five years have been almost identical to the position that we’re in and having opportunity, but it’s in front of us. And seizing it,” Pierce stated, referencing that he’s been in this situation before. “Hopefully, we can relish this, and relax and go play and compete and be the best that we can be.”
What isn’t identical? Pierce is at Texas now, where postseasons are expected and demons like entitlement and pressure can suck the life out of a roster. If the Longhorns are going to make the kind of finish that Pierce has experienced the last five seasons, they’ll need their veteran players to step up, and show the edge two of them showed last Saturday.
PROJECTED ROTATION AND SCHEDULE
FRIDAY (7:00 p.m.) - New Orleans RHP Shawn Semple (5-2, 2.82) vs. RHP Nolan Kingham (5-3, 2.08)
SATURDAY (4:00 p.m.) - New Orleans LHP Bryan Warzek (5-1, 2.14) vs. RHP Morgan Cooper (4-2, 1.63)
SUNDAY (1:00 p.m.) - New Orleans RHP Riley Hodge (0-1, 6.75) vs. RHP Kyle Johnston (3-3, 3.99)
Texas’ break from Big 12 play presents an interesting challenge in a New Orleans team that’s a good team offensively. It’s hitting .298/.379/.452 this season with 74 doubles and 35 homers. On the other hand, its pitching is a weakness, especially if a team is able to get into its bullpen early.
It would be a surprise if the Longhorns don't win the series. Frankly, they could use a sweep.