Baseball Preview: Texas

One of the better non-conference rivalries in college baseball continues this weekend when the Cardinal host the Texas Longhorns for three games. Stanford brings a 4-2 record into the weekend and is looking to bounce back after a series loss to Kansas. Meanwhile, the Longhorns are the defending national champions and return a wealth of talent including multiple expected first round draft picks.

Fresh off the sixth national championship in their program's history, the Texas Longhorns invade Sunken Diamond this weekend for a three-game series.  The preseason #1 ranked team in the country, Texas was brought back down to earth two weeks ago when they were swept by the host San Diego Toreros.  San Diego is expected to challenge for the WCC title this year, so it's no surprise the Longhorns were severely challenged that weekend.  However, that opening certainly raised a few eyebrows throughout the country.

Don't feel sorry for Texas though - this is a ballclub with perhaps the most talent of any club in the country.  They've rebounded nicely since that first weekend by rattling off four wins in their last five games to get their overall record back to .500 (4-4).  Last weekend, the Longhorns went 2-1 at the Houston College Classic recording victories over Houston and #5 Rice (their lone defeat came against 10th ranked Tulane). 

The chief reason Texas won the national championship last season was a dominant pitching staff full of capable starters and relievers.  As a club, the Longhorns compiled a staggering 2.80 ERA as a team.  Questions remain with this year's Texas team on who is going to step up as their primary relievers, but that is definitely not an issue with the top of their starting rotation.

Kyle McCulloch and Adrian Alaniz carried Texas last year as their #1 and #2 starters and both are back to lead the Horns in '06.  McCulloch went 12-4 with a sparkling 2.92 ERA over 138 innings last season.  The right-hander made a pair of starts in the College World Series tossing seven shutout frames against Tulane before a quality 6 2/3 inning appearance (two runs, eight strike outs) in the deciding final game against Florida.  The junior will likely be a first round selection this June in the amateur draft.

Alaniz also made a pair of impressive College World Series starts last year firing seven innings with just one run allowed against Baylor before seven more effective frames versus Florida (three hits, two runs) during the championship series.  Overall, Alaniz, now a redshirt sophomore, compiled an 8-3 record with a 2.67 ERA last year - a season which included a nine-inning no-hitter against Oklahoma last April.

The return of these two dominant starters is certainly the main reason Texas is a heavy favorite to return to Omaha this June.  So far, each has gotten off to a strong start.  Alaniz, who gets the ball on Friday, has allowed just two earned runs in his first 10 2/3 innings (1.69 ERA).  Meanwhile, McCulloch, who will start on Saturday, has similar numbers with two runs surrendered over 10 1/3 innings (1.74 ERA).

Offensively, Texas is well-known for playing a small ball type of game.  It works well with their large ballpark, astroturf field, and a pitching staff that generally doesn't require many runs for the club to notch victories.  Texas lost their top three hitters for average from the 2005 national champions, but returning is probably the most exciting position player in collegiate baseball.  Junior center fielder Drew Stubbs has a chance to be the first hitter selected by a major league team this June.

Stubbs is an incredible athlete who can do everything on the baseball field.  A preseason First Team All-American, Baseball America recently commented that: "No college player in the country possesses more physical tools than Stubbs."  Stanford, meanwhile, is all too familiar with how the superstar plays.  He drove home the game-winning runs in all three contests played between the two clubs in Austin last year.  Included were a pair of inside-the-park home runs in the Saturday and Sunday games - with the latter coming in the bottom of the ninth inning to wrap-up the sweep.

Last season, Stubbs hit .311 with 20 doubles, 11 home runs, 46 RBI, and 32 stolen bases.  The only real knock on his game is that he can be a bit strikeout-prone at times.  But other than that, it's hard not to enjoy watching him play the game.  The offensive numbers speak for themselves, but Stubbs is also a tremendous defensive center fielder with unbelievable speed.

Stubbs is off to a modest start in 2006 with a .241 batting average (7-for-29), two doubles, and a home run through eight games.  He's been hitting third in the order for the Longhorns.

Overall, Texas returns three other regular position player starters from last year's title team.  Junior first baseman Chance Wheeless hit .314 with six home runs and 45 RBI as the #5 hitter on the Longhorns last season.  He's now hitting fourth in the order behind Stubbs and is off to one of the better starts of any Texas hitter this year (.308 AVG).  Rightfielder Nick Peoples hit leadoff for the Horns last season and is back in that spot this year.  Peoples, like just about anyone in this Texas lineup, is capable of stealing a base at anytime.  He hit .306 with one home run and 13 stolen bags last year.  Finally, left fielder/DH Carson Kainer is an experienced returning starter that is expected to produce big numbers in the middle of the UT lineup this year.  In 2005, Kainer hit .312 with three homers and 31 RBI.

There's no question that those four players are the backbone of this year's Texas offense.  However, there are plenty of newcomers to the lineup that are incredibly talented and should make an impact in 2006.  Headlining the list is freshman left fielder Jordan Danks.  Danks, like Stubbs, is your textbook five-tool player.  He was rated the seventh best high school prospect in the country last June by Baseball America and was tabbed for a high first round selection.  The Round Rock native instead was passed over by the major league teams (until the 19th round) because of a strong commitment and desire to play for Augie Garrido and thus Danks is the most high-profile freshman college baseball player in the country this year.

In fact, BA even tabbed Danks a Preseason Third Team All-American despite the fact he had yet to play in a college baseball game.  That should tell you the kind of talent he brings to the table.  Thus far, Danks is hitting .231 (6-for-26) with a pair of triples out of the #6 spot in the batting order.

Texas' freshman class, rated first and third in the country by and Baseball America respectively has plenty of talented young players.  Danks is at the top of the list, but first baseman/DH Kyle Russell also had a chance to be selected in the first round last June based on his talent.  Russell smacked a game-winning, walkoff home run against in-state rival Rice in the bottom of the ninth inning last weekend.  A handful of talented young pitchers are also looking to fill key roles out of the bullpen.

Overall, the Longhorns are hitting .265 as a team through their first eight games.  Texas likely won't have an explosive offense, but it's very capable and that batting average number will certainly increase dramatically as the season progresses.  With the expected low-scoring affairs this weekend, expect plenty more small ball from Garrido as he tries to manufacture as many runs as possible. 

On the mound, Alaniz and McCulloch obviously carry the load.  They are the #1 and #1A pitchers on this team.  As far as Sunday starters go, it doesn't get much better than Randy Boone.  A junior right-hander, Boone made 18 starts (25 appearances) last year in recording a 7-4 record with a 3.46 ERA.  Boone's 109 innings pitched were second on the club behind only McCulloch.  This year, Boone had made one start and one relief appearance totaling 4 1/3 innings (two runs, five strike outs).

"Last year, they were probably a stronger team early because they had a more veteran team - same with Fullerton," says Cardinal head coach Mark Marquess.  "But no matter if they are young or they are not as experienced, Texas always expects to win.  Texas has a reputation.  They always play well, and they are well coached."

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Nick Peoples, RF  (Jr., .300, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 1 SB)
2. Chais Fuller, SS  (Jr., .281, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 0 SB)
3. Drew Stubbs, CF  (Jr., .241, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 4 SB)
4. Chance Wheeless, 1B  (Jr., .308, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 3 SB)
5. Bradley Suttle, 3B  (Fr., .241, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 0 SB)
6. Jordan Danks, LF  (Fr., .231, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 2 SB)
7. Carson Kainer, DH  (Jr., .208, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Preston Clark, C  (Fr., .276, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Clay Van Hook, 2B  (Jr., .412, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 2 SB)

Fri- Adrian Alaniz, RHP  (So., 1-0, 1.69 ERA, 10.2 IP, 4 BB, 6 SO)
Sat- Kyle McCulloch, RHP  (Jr., 0-1, 1.74 ERA, 10.1 IP, 5 BB, 12 SO)
Sun- Randy Boone, RHP  (Jr., 0-1, 4.15 ERA, 4.1 IP, 3 BB, 5 SO)

Notes: Fuller is a transfer from Sacramento City College who has to replace last year's leading hitter Seth Johnston (.378 AVG, 9 HR) at shortstop ... Stubbs hit .304 in 19 games for the US National Team last summer ... Wheeless owns one of the biggest home runs in Texas history when he connected for a walkoff blast in the bottom of the ninth inning against Baylor in the CWS bracket final last June ... Kainer is off to a slow start with just five hits in his first 24 at-bats ... Kyle Russell (2-for-8, HR, 2 RBI) could see playing time at DH in his place ... Clark redshirted as a freshman last year, but is one of the top young catching prospects in the country ... Van Hook is leading the Longhorns in hitting from the #9 spot in the order ... McCulloch went 4-0 with a 1.44 ERA in four starts for Team USA last summer.

The Cardinal bring a 4-2 record and the #24 national ranking into this weekend's series.  After their impressive sweep of Cal State Fullerton two weeks ago, Stanford dropped two-of-three to the visiting Kansas Jayhawks last week.  The Cardinal have been winning with strong pitching as they boast a 3.44 ERA as a team through their first six games.  Friday starter Greg Reynolds, despite not yet picking up a victory this young season, has a sparkling 2.13 ERA (3 ER/12.2 IP) with no walks and 12 strike outs.  Reynolds, one of the top junior pitching prospects in the country, has established himself as the top starting pitcher on the team with a strong Fall Ball and continued success through the start of the regular season.

Senior righty Matt Manship will garner the Saturday afternoon start.  Manship has excelled over the first three innings of each of his two starts (no earned runs allowed) before struggling mightily in the fourth inning (seven runs and just one out recorded).  Meanwhile, Stanford is officially "TBA" on Sunday, but expect junior right-hander Matt Leva to again get the ball.  Leva has compiled a 1.86 ERA (2 ER/9.2 IP) and a 1-0 record in his first two Sunday starts this season.

Out of the bullpen, frosh southpaw Jeremy Bleich has been the go-to pitcher with his 0.00 ERA in 7 1/3 innings.  Bleich has a win and two saves over his four relief appearances.  Stanford's deep relief corps has also seen early success from Nolan Gallagher (5 2/3 IP, 1 R, 0 BB, 8 SO), Sean Ratliff (3 2/3 IP, 0 R, 2 BB, 6 SO) and Erik Davis (3 1/3 IP, 1 R, 2 BB, 2 SO).

At the plate, it's mainly been a struggle for the Cardinal bats.  And based on Texas' dominant starting pitching, it may still be awhile before the Stanford hitters can get into any sort of groove this young season.  Stanford is scoring just under five runs per game thus far with a dismal .222 team batting average.  No regulars are hitting over .300 with the three seniors all off to slow starts (Minaker .208, Hester .182, Lewis .105).

"I think it will be a good measuring stick for us this weekend - where we need to improve," says Marquess.  "We get them at home, which is a little bit easier.  We played Fullerton and Texas on the road last year.  We won one at Fullerton and lost three close games at Texas.  That can destroy you or make you stronger.  If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger. 
It'll be a little bit easier to play at home, but they're tough."

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Joey August, LF  (Fr., 4-for-6, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 SB)
2. Jim Rapoport, CF  (Jr., .261, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .208, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 1 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .200, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 1 SB)
5. Brent Milleville, DH  (Fr., .182, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 0 SB)
6. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .211, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 SB)
7. John Hester, C  (Sr., .182, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 1 SB)
8. Austin Yount, 3B  (Fr., .286, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .105, 2 HR, 3 RBI, 0 SB)

Fri- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 0-0, 2.13 ERA, 12.2 IP, 0 BB, 12 SO)
Sat- Matt Manship, RHP  (Sr., 0-1, 9.95 ERA, 6.1 IP, 0 BB, 6 SO)
Sun- TBA

Notes: August went 3-for-4 in his first start in the leadoff spot last Sunday against Kansas ... He has four hits in his first six at-bats (with three walks and a .778 OBP) to begin his collegiate career ... Minaker hit third in the order for the first time in his career last Sunday ... Taylor went 0-for-9 in the Kansas series after an impressive opening weekend (4-for-11) ... Hester recorded two hits in his last three at-bats on Sunday after just two hits in his first 19 AB's this year ... Yount is leading the team in batting average among regulars (.286), RBI (7), and slugging percentage (.786) ... Lewis has just two hits in 19 at-bats to begin the year ... Both hits have been home runs.

* The starting pitching trio of Alaniz, McCulloch, and Boone each threw over 100 innings last year (108, 138, and 109 respectively).  They combined for a 27-11 record, 288 strike outs, five complete games, three shutouts, and a no-hitter.  Texas allowed just eight runs total in their five College World Series games last June (all wins) with this trio leading the way (closer J. Brent Cox certainly played a major role as well).

* Baseball America's 2006 Draft Preview recently featured a mock first round.  Stubbs was the second player taken overall with McCulloch selected with the 17th pick.  Stanford's Reynolds was the 26th pick.

* Texas' offense struggled in their first two losses at San Diego scoring just two runs combined (4-2 and 6-0).  The bats came to life in the finale scoring eight runs, but the Longhorns still came up short falling by a 12-8 final.

* Texas' team ERA currently sits at 3.57.

* Texas swept Stanford last February at Disch-Falk Field winning the three games by a total of four runs (6-4, 8-7, 5-4).  The Cardinal had won four consecutive regular season series' played between the teams.  The Longhorns did eliminate Stanford in the 2002 CWS bracket final on their way to a national championship.  In 2001, Stanford defeated Texas twice on the final day of the Palo Alto Regional to advance in the postseason.

* As mentioned above, the current freshmen were rated third best in the country by Baseball America at the start of the school year.  The current sophomores were rated #1 in the country as a group when they entered school.

* Huston Street may be long gone to the pros, but the name lives on in Austin.  Street's younger twin brothers, Juston and Jordon are both relief pitchers on this year's Longhorn club.  Jordon is a sophomore who has allowed one run in three innings over four appearances this year.  Juston is a redshirt freshman who has surrendered three runs in two innings spanning four relief outings.

* Who is going to step forward to lead the UT bullpen is definitely a central question with the losses of Cox (42 games, 1.73 ERA, 78 innings, 19 saves) and Clayton Stewart (41 games, 3.04 ERA, 68 innings).  As with every other position on the field, the Longhorns don't lack talent with their relievers.  That said, it remains to be seen who their closer will be.  Texas doesn't have the top stopper in the game in 2006 that they did in '05 with Cox.

* Stanford's top two starting pitchers (Reynolds and Manship) have combined for no walks over 19 innings pitched this season.  Top relievers Bleich and Gallagher have also yet to walk any hitters (13 innings).

* The Cardinal finish their season-opening 10-game homestand on Monday afternoon with a single contest against the Nevada Wolf Pack.  First pitch at Sunken Diamond is scheduled for 1:00 P.M.  The Wolf Pack are just 1-5 this season with a whopping 7.74 team ERA through six games.  They host UNLV in a three-game series this weekend.

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