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Tweaking the ping

Baseball is here – the 2011 season gets started on Friday. New bats. Goodbye Nebraska. Competitive conference. Defend the crown. Another Garrido milestone. Yeah, storylines abound.

Yesterday, the Big 12 announced that Oklahoma was selected as the preseason favorite to win the conference. OU received six first place votes and the Horns received the other four. Interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, the Sooners will be good. Having said that, Texas won its sixth Big 12 title last season. The Horns ripped off 17 consecutive league victories and nearly played .900 ball in conference play (24-3).

It’s a new team and a new year, but picking against Texas in baseball is on par with trying not to stare at the cover of the SI swimsuit edition while checking out at HEB. It’s inevitable, so why fight it?

Still unconvinced? Still have visions of TCU dog-piling at The Disch? Forget 24-3.

If you think the Big 12 coaches were on the right track when they picked OU, slap yourself. The one thing you need to know about the 2011 college baseball season is BBCOR, or Ball-Bat Coefficient Of Restitution.

Rumors abound that Huckleberry masterminded the new rule changes.

I’ll spare you the acronyms and the details. What you need to know is that the NCAA has mandated a new rule that will change the game. Effective this year, the old-style aluminum bats are replaced by new models that are reportedly equivalent to a wood bat.

That’s right Horns fans, pitching and defense just got that much more critical. The two things that Augie Garrido puts faith in above all else are about to become major mainstays at the collegiate level.

Realistically, a Garrido-led Texas club will quietly embrace the new rule because it tilts the game in their favor. Garrido + Jungmann/Green + Loy/Etier = The big stack at the table. The Longhorns are going to play from a position of strength in 2011.

Texas Longhorns in 2010:

2.45 team ERA – 1st nationally

.980 fielding percentage – 1st nationally

6.8 rpg – 163rd nationally

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the offense did not ultimately cost the club a shot at the CWS title last year. Other than exasperation, what you should take away from the above stat lines is that the Horns are very adept at playing the brand of ball that will become the new standard across the country.

Here are what I consider to be the three biggest keys to the season:

1. Pitching roles

Arguably when Chance Ruffin and Brandon Workman were selected in the 2010 MLB Draft, Texas lost it’s top two pitchers. That may be slighting Cole Green and Taylor Jungmann, but both guys had stellar seasons.

With Green and Jungmann returning and a staff full of the preponderance of available scholarship dollars, the Longhorns are in great shape in 2011. The question is not whether the pitching will be good, it’s whether the players and coaches are able to fill the needed roles.

Hoby Milner, Andrew McKirahan, Austin Dicharry, Josh Urban and plenty of others are all more than capable of performing at a high level. Can they fill the roles needed?

Quality arms and innings are plentiful on this team. Whether or not those players can excel in the position this team needs them is the difference between a competitive season and a trip to Omaha.

2. Timely hitting

"Good enough" is a frustrating plan for offense. It works, but clobbering a team 10-2 lends a satisfaction that Texas fans are not accustomed to seeing. The good news is that a 3-2 win counts the same as a 10-2 pounding does.

For all the attention that a .285’ish batting average garnered last year, the team still managed to finish with a respectable 427 runs scored. Seven different players hit at least 8 homeruns on the year.

There was no single player that the opposing dugout feared at the plate, but there was a game-by-game unpredictability to the Texas lineup that became troublesome for other coaches. Just when Sunny Golloway neutralized Keyes, Moldenhauer and Rupp, Cohl Walla went 3 for 5 and scored three runs, propelling the Horns to a 5-0 win.

With the new bats, coaches across the country are reporting that they are seeing entire batting practice sessions pass without a homerun. Small ball sends some carnival-goers into fits, but, if anything, expect more of it this year.

With runs at a premium, what the 2011 squad needs is a player that consistently drives in runs in clutch situations. I’m talking Bradley Suttle’s sophomore year – it’s been that long since there’s been a dependable RBI man in the lineup. When a runner’s on 2B, this team must score. A 2-run homer or a .310 team average aren’t realistic or needed.

3. Development at Catcher

Jacob Felts is a true freshman from Orange (Orangefield HS) that has already been tabbed "Next". He’d better be ready because this is a major void on the 2011 roster.

In leadership, offense or defense guys like Cameron Rupp and Taylor Teagarden always found a way to contribute. Asking a true freshman to step in at catcher is akin to having a greenhorn Center on the OL in football - it can be done, but you’d rather not.

With runs at a premium: teams will be aggressive on the base paths; Texas pitchers need to confidently attack the strike zone; defensive errors and passed balls will hurt more than normal. Realistically, given the rule changes this year, there isn’t a more important position on the entire team….no pressure, Jacob.

In baseball, an excellent defensive team starts behind the plate. Some things like alignment and pitch selection can (and will) be handled from the dugout, but the little luxuries that stem from having a veteran behind the plate shouldn’t be minimized.

If there is a player equipped to handle the job, Felts is likely him. Even though Catcher is a premium position and MLB teams often reach in the draft for high school talent, Felts made it known early that he intended to attend UT.

First and foremost, he’s an above average defensive player. He’s a line drive hitter which plays well to The Disch and the new bats, but I expect Augie to take as much pressure off him as possible. That likely means that he’ll bat at the bottom of the order and be asked to focus his contributions on defense.

There are some other options at Catcher, but this team will be it’s best if Felts transitions to the college game without issue.

There’s only three days left before the Horns start the season against Maryland. My hope is do a piece on specific players, positions and lineups at the end of the week. What is your primary concern with this team?