Oklahoma gave Texas its 16th loss of the season on Sunday afternoon in Norman, dropping the Longhorns to four games below .500 prior to their matchup with Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Tuesday. The defeat also marked sophomore pitcher Connor Mayes’ fourth loss of the season, his second in the closer’s role.
Mayes has been far from perfect since taking the mantle as Texas’ ninth-inning specialist. He has surrendered three runs in five appearances, struggling at times with command. But Mayes’ issues shouldn’t signal an abdication from the role. For the sake of the Texas bullpen, head coach Augie Garrido must stick with Mayes as his closer.
Prior to Mayes’ entrance into the pen, Garrido trotted out four different closers at one point in the season. But instead of slamming the door on opponents, the Longhorns consistently left it open. Bullpen stability has been a key issue for Texas, compounded by a shaky defense behind the mound. The combination led to combustible end-of-game situations, with the Longhorns leaving many winnable games on the table.
“We need to execute more consistently,” Garrido said. “We’ve made far too many mistakes, especially late in games.”
The Longhorns thought they had their end-of-game answer earlier in the year. Freshman reliever Chase Shugart shined at the start of the season, earning the moniker “Shutdown Shugart.” He struck out six batters in his first five appearances, blowing by batters with a fastball clocking in over 95 miles per hour.
But Shugart’s competitive streak seemed to outpace his fastball. The fiery freshman displayed significant emotion on the mound and suffered two crushing defeats in the closer’s role. A matchup with California on March 6 saw Shugart surrender five runs en route to a 10-7 loss, and Shugart blew the lead against Tulane on
“He’s a competitor out there,” Garrido said. “He’s a very talented kid, but he tries to make the perfect pitch and doesn’t always trust the guys behind him.”
With Shugart no longer an option, Garrido looked to the rest of his bullpen for answers. But the list of suitable closers proved shorter than expected. Senior pitcher Travis Duke has an extremely durable arm but doesn’t have any go-to pitches befitting a closer.
And while sophomore pitcher Kyle Johnston seemed to be quality candidate, his team-leading 20 walks gave Garrido pause. A leadoff walk is extremely dangerous in late innings, and additional baserunners are the last thing Texas’ defense needs.
Some may argue for a bullpen-by-committee approach, but constant reshuffling of the pitching staff is far from beneficial. Mayes has the talent to be one of the premier closers in the Big 12, and entered the season as a member of Texas’ weekend rotation. Even after Sunday’s blown save, Garrido needs to stick to his guns in the bullpen. It may be his best chance to salvage the season before it slips away.