There is no more soul-deadening time of year than early February.
Football is over, having spent the last month dwindling before our eyes like a vegetating grandparent that you can’t quite bring yourself to pull the plug on. Yeah, the NFL playoffs are great and all, but if I don’t get twelve hours of football a day on both Saturday and Sunday, I start to get the shakes, plain and simple. And unlike many of my fellow barkers, I can’t even pretend to feign disingenuous interest in basketball – even if I could, March Madness is still several weeks away. No, February is a month as bleak and barren as the face of Mars. Or even Oklahoma.
But fear not! Mid-February also heralds the beginning of baseball season. In the big leagues, pitchers and catchers report, bringing the smell of pine tar and peanuts to little towns in Florida and Arizona that have smelt of little but Poligrip and diaper rash and where the restaurants have been packed at 5:00 pm and vacant by 7:00 since October. And best of all, just on the eastern side I-35, the distinctive ping of aluminum assures us that batting bunting practice has begun.
Since I live in far away NYC, this preview is not based on first-hand observations of this year’s team. That said, this is Texas, and you know what you can expect under Augie: pitching, bunting, and the occasional alcohol-related incident that receives a shrug of the shoulders in Austin but would likely doom any coach with fewer than 1500 wins. Besides, most of last year’s team is back.
Let’s start the preview.
Even the laziest sportswriter among the very few that bother to cover this sport is aware that we are muy macho on the mound. Augie thinks this is his best staff ever.
On the coaching side, Skip Johnson did a fantastic job last year and diminished a good deal of non-entirely-unjustified skepticism in the process. We return all of our best pitchers from last year, with the lone exception of Austin Wood. Chance Ruffin (3.32 ERA) will take a crack at the closer’s role, and I really like the move. He has the right attitude for it, attacking hitters with fastballs and hard breaking stuff. Consistent with that approach, he gives up the occasional long home run, but he has the mental makeup to shrug it off and that is crucial for a closer.
Also, with Taylor Jungmann (2.00 ERA), Cole Green (3.34 ERA), and Brandon Workman (3.48 ERA), we need a closer more than we need another starter – even a great starter like Ruffin. Austin Dicharry (2.28 ERA) was excellent in middle relief last year, at least until we arrived in Omaha and all his pitches started coming in one foot high and two feet wide. I would not be surprised to see him get some weekday starts. Stayton Thomas (2.11 ERA) and Kendal Carrillo (3.52 ERA) gave us quality innings last season in lower pressure situations. After that things become uncertain.
Of course, most teams don’t get anywhere near eight deep in their pitching staff before they start to weep a little, and we have some very talented young players who will hopefully step up – guys like left-handed sophomores Andrew McKirahan and Sam Stafford, who did not see much run as freshmen. People also say freshman Josh Urban has looked good in practices, and then there is the venerable Riley Boening, who has been out with an injury since the Carter administration.
Cameron Rupp returns and will be one of the leaders of this team. He hit a respectable .292 last year and led the team in HRs with 11. He won’t be confused with Taylor Teagarden out there defensively, but he threw out over 30% of potential basestealers – my friends, that is not shabby. Coach Harmon usually does a good job with our catchers defensively. Besides, anyone with the stones to hit a game-tying homerun to CF against Arizona State in the 9th inning on the biggest stage will do just fine for me, thank you very much. Backing him up will likely be freshman Jonathan Walsh, who was highly regarded and by all accounts can mash at the plate – he may also play elsewhere to get in the lineup. Nick DeSantiago was a well regarded recruit, and he is listed as a catcher.
This position could be tricky. We have been seeing Keyes and Shepherd here. That troubles me. Keyes is an immensely talented hitter, if lacking in batting instincts. Unfortunately, his fielding instincts are similar. Shepherd has some experience in the infield, but his defense has been shaky as well. Defense at 1B is not just about not making errors oneself, it is also bailing the other infielders out when their throws are off-line or in the dirt field turf. Clearly we need Keyes in the lineup, but I am from Missouri on whether it will be at 1B. Branson, Missouri. Shepherd showed promise at the plate as a freshman, but by the end of last year he looked lost up there. It is not unlikely that we end up with a newcomer here, or possibly Moldenhauer.
Jordan Etier steps in here for the departing Travis Tucker (who is now the volunteer assistant coach). Etier played sparingly last year, hitting .267. Our other options are true freshmen Jordan Weymouth and walk-on Chris Ryan.
Folks, Brandon Loy is the truth. He hit .288 as a freshman without much power, but he immediately established himself as a certified badass in the field. He will never make a living launching homeruns, but he has the tools to be a solid line-drive hitter. Besides, with guys that play SS like he does, anything they do at the plate is a bonus.
Kevin Lusson appears to be the guy here. He hit .310 in limited action as a freshman, and walked 15 times to 5 Ks. Hopefully he is ready to take the next step.
If the lineup in the Alumni Game is an indication, sophomore Tim Maitland will start out here. He hit .194 as a freshman with no extra base hits. I am holding out hope that we see someone like freshman Cohl Walla here, if not on opening day then by the end of the month. We need some power here. Walla is very talented and as thin as a twig. Hopefully some power develops as he fills out. Moldenhauer or Shepherd may also play here.
Connor Rowe plays very good defense (a necessity in Disch Falk’s spacious outfield) and can hit the occasional HR at the bottom of the order – which he tries to do every single time he swings the bat. Nothing wrong with that. You can win championships with guys like Rowe, as long as you have enough hitters around him so he can hit 9th.
We started Kyle Lusson in the Alumni Game. He is a senior who plays good defense but has hit .170, .306, and .240 in limited action his first three seasons with 5 career extra base hits. You can draw your own conclusions. This team needs power at the corner outfield spots – personally I think we’ll see Keyes end up back here.
After hitting .355 as a sophomore, Russell Moldenhauer missed most of last year with injuries. But he came back in a big way in Omaha and carried that momentum into Fall Ball. If he stays healthy, he should anchor our lineup and provide some much-needed power. He might also play some LF or 1B.
We start #1 for a reason. This game all starts on the mound, and we are loaded. Defensively, we are a 1B away from being pretty good like last year (at least until the CWS when we started channeling our inner Pete Incaviglia – both at the plate and in the field). Offensively, it is anyone’s guess at this point, could be anywhere between adequate and frustrating. Nor do we have an overabundance of speed. Like it or not, that is a recipe for a lot of sacrifice bunts, probably over 100 for the season.
Like most seasons, we will see a lot of experimentation in the lineup and batting order early on. If we end up with holes in the lineup, where good pitchers can find a couple automatic outs in a row, we are in big big trouble. We simply do not have a middle of the order that is going to score runs on its own consistently. Of course, our 2005 team did not have a big middle of the order either, but it did have nine guys who could be trusted to hit in big spots and play lights out defense the rest of the time. That is what we need this year. With our pitching, that is all we need.
If our offense starts out hot, this is a team that could start 20-2 and sit at or around #1 indefinitely. It is more likely that the bats take some time to get going, leading to frustrating early losses in the Astros College Classic or elsewhere and the inevitable bitching by irate fans who demand to know who WHO our hitting coach is so we can fire him. (It’s Augie.) Either way, it is Omaha or bust, and everybody knows it.
Editor's Note: This was written prior to some of the news coming out about Keyes not playing 1B and Stayton The Stopper. - S.R.