Our Game

"We’re best at pitching, defense and scratching out runs, that’s our game."

- Augie Garrido

That was Augie after last night's 3-1 win over Texas State. Not earth-shattering, but it does provide both insight and reassurance about where this team is headed over the next few months.

The Texas Longhorn baseball team is 12-5 and has won four weekend series against Maryland, Hawaii, Stanford and Brown. Pitching is nasty. Team defense is above average. Hitting is below average. In other words, this team is exactly where I expected them to be at this point.

Yet, I’m not one to tell you my expectations are the correct ones. That statement was more to say that when you have your pick of high school hardballers and then coach them with a man that’s won more than 1,700 collegiate baseball games, then beating those teams meets min.

Preseason Coaches Polls:
Maryland was picked 8th in the ACC
Hawaii was picked 2nd in the WAC
Stanford was picked 2nd in the Pac10

Lest we forget Brown University spent a weekend in Austin. I didn’t look to see how the Ivy League coaches voted in the preseason. A poll is too close to Math. English and History are far superior.

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Brown's campus is often mistaken for the BC offices.

So, we’re roughly one-third of the way into the season and the conference slate is upon us. Here are a few takeaways from the early-goings at the Disch. If a 10,000-foot view is too damn specific for you, then click here for an even broader brush.

Starting Pitching
Taylor Jungmann has been everything he was thought to be before the season started. This is what it would have looked like if Vince Young had come back for one more go ‘round.

In 2010, Cole Green developed a solid breaking ball that was particularly effective against right-handed hitters. In 2011 he’s had trouble commanding the location of that pitch. His fastball and changeup are still there, but to maximize his outings he will need that third pitch. To be fair, Green rates way down the list of concerns for the team.

Sam Stafford and Hoby Milner have each been solid when given the opportunity to start. For a brief moment, it appeared as though Milner might jump into a closing role. With that job looking more secure, the coaches really have a ton of flexibility to use these two as a third starter and long reliever. There aren’t that many Saturday starters in the Big 12 that I’d trade either for, so when one takes the bump on Sundays it’s pretty comfortable.

I expect the coaches to continue to use mid-week games as auditions for stretch-run starters. For this team to be it’s best, one of Milner or Stafford will help stabilize the pen and let Kirby Bellow or Kiefer Nuncio continue to get weekday looks as a starter. If losing to TAMCC makes your reflux active, then I suggest watching individual performances over team results where midweek games are concerned.

Relief Pitching
For many, the closer’s role was this team’s biggest question mark as it started the year. Entering the Stanford series, the team was still rotating through auditions.

Then Corey Knebel happened. To that point, the freshman right-hander from Georgetown had been rather unremarkable. Other than throwing a wild pitch that resulted in the extra inning loss to Hawaii, the season had gone about as expected for the youngster.

In the last two weeks, Knebel has racked up 4 saves (Stanford twice, one against Brown and last night against Texas State). He’s using power pitches and an effective wildness to freeze hitters. It’s a long season and whether or not he can sustain remains a huge question. For now, expect Augie Garrido to continue to provide Knebel with opportunities to fail.

Beyond Knebel, the bullpen still ranks as one of the team’s biggest concerns. Several players have performed quite well and others have not. I continue to like Kiefer Nuncio and Josh Urban’s potential, but both need to cut down on the walks. The quickest way to lose your spot in Skip Johnson’s rotation is to issue free passes.

Every time that Kendal Carrillo, Stayton Thomas or Andrew McKirahan throw a strike, they cement their spot in the pecking order. I expect Garrido and Johnson to continue to whittle the list down to four arms that see a majority of work.

Offense
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The Weakest Link, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader and Wipeout – bad game show ideas or nicknames for the Texas batting order? It’s not a secret…this team was going to be long on pitching and defense and short on offense, and that has played out over the early-goings.

Freshman Erich Weiss isn’t just leading Texas in most offensive categories, he’s at or near the top of the Big 12 in batting, slugging and RBI. Reports have Weiss leaving the ballpark accompanied by a short skirt that holds a numbered, silver briefcase while taunting Howie Mandel.

Mark Payton and Jacob Felts have joined Weiss and are over-delivering for their age. Given the start that Felts had at the plate, his improvement to .300 is significant. If Payton’s average sours you, then focus on double digit walks and his work on the base paths. As long as he continues to get on base and manufacture productive chances for teammates, he’s doing his job.

I am satisfied with or seeing improvement in Loy, Walla and Shepherd. Walsh and Montalbano need to pick it up.

I tend to give Lusson a pass since his role changed so drastically. If he can adequately spell Felts behind the plate, giving the youngster valuable time off, then I favor him at designated hitter. There is value in playing regularly and when combining that with the fact that the Horns are building for June, the Walsh/Lusson see-saw is one I will watch with interest.

Defense
Borrowing from Mack, a .967 fielding percentage is not our standard. In very telling fashion, the Horns are 6-3 when they commit one or more errors.

In reality, defensive lapses are a referendum on poor offensive performance. The Texas batting order is not good enough to overcome extra outs given away by the defense. Making this pitching staff work harder or throw longer is another undesirable side effect.

Regardless, defense ranks behind offense and the bullpen in terms of areas of concern. Etier and Loy will be fine. Felts and Weiss get passes because of the offensive contributions and youth. Those four players account for 70% of the team’s errors. The defense will tighten up, which is why I rank it down my list of concerns.

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