Longhorns need to regroup before conference play begins again

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Howeth | Daily Texan Staff

It’s been an up-and-down season for Texas.

The Longhorns swept a doubleheader against Duke on the first day of the season, but lost seven of their next nine games before a stretch that saw them win 10 of 11 contests. As it stands now, Texas is 15-11 and at No. 25 in the latest Baseball America rankings, is on the brink of dropping out of the polls. A year ago, it was May 1 when the Longhorns lost their 11th game and they were ranked No. 7. In 2010, Texas did not lose 11 games until the end of the Big 12 tournament, when it was listed behind only top-ranked Virginia in Baseball America’s Top 25 poll.

“We’ve gone to Omaha with less talent,” said Longhorns head baseball coach Augie Garrido before the season began.

After losing two out of three games at the Dell Diamond in Round Rock against Cal, who went to Omaha and even beat Texas A&M in last year’s College World Series, Texas needs to bounce back before it squares off against Texas Tech this Thursday when it begins a three-game series against the Red Raiders.

Against the Golden Bears, the problem was not hitting well so much as it was not hitting well when the Longhorns had runners on base, particularly when they were in scoring position.

In its one win, a 13-3 triumph in the series opener Friday, Texas was 7-for-16 (.438) at the plate with runners in scoring position and boasted a .550 on-base percentage while racking up nine RBIs and three extra-base hits, including a two-run home run from junior designated hitter Landon Steinhagen, his first of the season. But in the Longhorns’ two losses against Cal, they managed only four hits in 16 at-bats, three singles and a double, along with a .381 on-base percentage with runners in scoring position.

This disparity was never more evident than in the last two innings of the final contest of the series when sophomore right fielder Mark Payton, who has reached base in each of Texas’ 26 games this season, chased a first-pitch changeup and grounded out to the shortstop with senior center fielder Tim Maitland on third base with one out. Maitland was stranded there after senior shortstop Jordan Etier struck out looking in the next at-bat.

“It’s really frustrating, especially since this was such a big game for us, RPI-wise,” Payton said. “We hit some balls hard right at them. They got the big hit, we didn’t. That’s just the way the ball goes sometimes.”

When the Longhorns were struggling in the beginning of the season, they didn’t have many runners in scoring position to work with. Texas holds a .272 team batting average and a .371 on-base percentage for the season but during an 11-game stretch when it went 3-8, Longhorns’ hitters batted just .207 and managed an on-base percentage of .303. In their other 15 contests, 12 of which have resulted in Texas victories, they’ve hit .306 and posted an on-base percentage of .417.

But in certain key situations this weekend, the Longhorns didn’t look like a team that scored almost eight runs per game over a recent 10-game stretch.

“I didn’t have a positive effect on them,” Garrido said. “Every time I talked to them about anything, it went the other way. It went backwards.”

Texas has proven that it can bounce back from days, and even weeks, worse than this. Eighteen of the Longhorns’ last 24 regular season games, including this week’s three-game series against Texas Tech beginning this Thursday, are against Big 12 opponents. So with Texas heading into the home stretch of conference play, the sooner it can bounce back, the better.

Printed on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 as: Timely hitting necessary for Texas to bounce back