Texas on road to redemption

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The Longhorns celebrate after a win. On the year, the team is 43-15 and earned top eight national seed (No. 7) for the seventh time since 1999.

Photo Credit: Ryan Smith | Daily Texan Staff

It has been exactly 356 days since June 12, 2010, the day a promising baseball season came to a painful end. That hot day, the scoreboard at Disch-Falk read: Texas 1, TCU 4. The upstart Horned Frogs advanced to the College World Series in Omaha and the Longhorns headed nowhere but home.

Today marks the beginning of the Longhorns’ road to redemption; their chance to make good out of last year’s bad. The opponent is no TCU and the stage is no game three of a super regional, but tonight’s opening game of the Austin Regional against Princeton is an important step in putting a proud program back on the right track.

In 2010, Texas could do no wrong. Fueled by a bombastic offense, the Longhorns whacked 81 home runs (a school record) and scored almost seven runs a game. The lineup was headlined by the 3-4-5 order of Rupp-Moldenhauer-Keyes; big-time bats that made up the closest thing this bunt-happy school might ever see to a Murderer’s Row batting order. Texas had two pitchers eclipse the 10-win mark, and neither of them was named Jungmann. In one stretch of the schedule, the team won 21 consecutive games. After a loss at Kansas State broke up the streak, the Longhorns went on to win seven more in a row.

Omaha looked like a lock. Texas got the No. 2 overall seed in the nation, plowed through the regional opponents by a combined score of 19-3 in three games and set the stage for a rematch of the 2009 Super Regional — a best-of-three series against TCU in a suddenly hot baseball rivalry.

The Longhorns lost the first game 3-1. They stormed back the next game with a 14-1 win behind the pitching of Taylor Jungmann. Game three was set up nicely for Texas. Brandon Workman, who had already won 11 games, would be taking the mound. The team had proved successful all year in must-win scenarios. An orange crowd of over 7,000 would be rocking.

None of it mattered. Victorious, the Horned Frogs danced on the team logo in shallow centerfield, and the proud Longhorns had to watch from the dugout.

The narrative for this year’s team has been completely different, though there has been the usual Omaha-or-bust theme.

“To win a national championship is really my only goal this season,” said senior pitcher Cole Green on the eve of the season-opener.

For a while, that goal looked unrealistic. Although they were highly ranked all season long, there were serious concerns about the Longhorns, mostly regarding an anemic offense. The team’s combined batting average of .270 is 220th in the nation, and the runs per game, 5.3, ranks 179th.

Texas has been carried by its pitching, especially Jungmann, who has the nation’s longest winning streak at 15 games. There has also been unexpected help from the freshmen, namely Erich Weiss, Mark Payton and Jacob Felts. Weiss leads the team in almost every offensive category and was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Payton has become a staple in the top of the lineup and in right field, and Felts is the everyday catcher.

“The best players on the field right now are the younger guys,” Garrido said after the season-opening Maryland series. “They go out, keep it simple and play ball.”

Also important has been the improved play of Brandon Loy. The junior shortstop has been a regular in the lineup since his freshman season, but has been regarded mainly as a defensive player and bunting specialist. But toward the middle of the season, Loy started to take off offensively, becoming so productive that Garrido elected to move him out of his sac-bunting spot at the two-hole and into the leadoff position.

“Brandon does what we ask him to,” Garrido said. “He is a really good player.”

As the year went on, the Longhorns continued to win consistently. There were no incredible winning streaks — the season high was a seven-game stringer — and there were hardly any homeruns, just 13 total. Texas only swept two conference series, but didn’t lose but one. There were wins over Stanford, Oklahoma and Texas A&M; and embarrassing losses to Brown and Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Along the way, Garrido picked up career win No. 1,800, the first college baseball coach ever to do so. The Longhorns won their final series of the regular season — a showdown against the Aggies — to clinch a share of the Big 12 Championship.

This team has the potential to avoid the pitfalls that snared last year’s Longhorns because, according to Garrido, it has an innate ability to recognize its flaws.

“They have faced enough adversity, given away enough games,” he said. “They understand that they’ve had moments of brilliance and moments of letdowns. When you recognize that, you can do something about it.”

Loy agrees: “This team is totally differently. Last year, we had the team to win the national championship, but we just didn’t play like we should have. This year, we are young, but the new guys can see the effects that last year’s finish has had on us.”

The Longhorns have learned from last year’s heartbreak, and seem to have some good karma bouncing back their way. They received a very favorable regional and super regional draw. The two-seed in the group, Texas State, is a team most analysts picked as a three-seed. The Bobcats have also lost to Texas twice this year in regular season competition. Should Texas advance out of the regional, it would, as a top eight national seed, be guaranteed to host the super regional in Austin, with the likely opponent being Arizona State (39-17).

Garrido often compares this year’s team to the 2009 one, a group that made it to the CWS Finals, saying that each one had “magic” about it: a bunch of scrappy players who never say die, despite the odds stacked against them.

His players should feel good about being compared to a team that made it to Omaha. After all, a trip back to baseball’s heartland has been the objective ever since last season’s crushing loss one long year ago.