Turning Point: Baseball Team Has Found Its Mojo

Recently, some subscribers asked what is the matter with the UT baseball team. It may come as a surprise that No. 9 Texas, forty games into the season, is at a remarkably comparable spot to last year's national champion team at the same point in the season. What's more, this year's league-leading squad is at a more advantageous spot in the Big 12 standings than was the 2002 bunch following the Oklahoma series. Team members can locate a pivotal point where both seasons turned for the better.

Last year's bunch stood at 30-10 at this juncture while head coach Augie Garrido's current crew has tallied a 29-11 mark against far superior competition. Texas has played 22 games against teams that are either currently ranked in the three major baseball polls (Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, Sports Weekly/ESPN) or that were ranked at the time of the contest. More important, Texas is now atop the Big 12 standings with a 12-3 record while last year's team, at 9-6, was just starting to emerge from the middle of the pack.

Most attribute last season's turnaround to a rain-delayed, double-header at Oklahoma. Following a Friday night loss in Norman, the Horns were but 7-6 in league play and faced a promising season that was bordering on mediocrity. A Saturday afternoon rainout forced the team indoors but, most of all, forced them to turn inward. Following an extended session of soul-searching, the team would win 17 of its next 22 en route to the school's fifth national championship.

A similar session took place two weeks ago, this time in the batting cages behind the Texas dugout, according to sophomore 3B/P Huston Street. It was April Fools Day and the dreaded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders (uh-huh, the same directional school that blanked Texas 5-0 in its Feb. 5 home opener) were in Austin for an encore. Texas had just dropped four of its last seven, including home losses to Texas Tech and Southwest Texas State while losing a pair at Oklahoma State.

According to the College World Series Most Outstanding Player, the private team meeting went something like this:

"We came together and let everything out," Street said. "Everybody said what they thought. Basically what it boiled down to is that we needed to come out here and appreciate what we have, to come out and give nine innings of hard-fought baseball every single day and let the results take care of themselves. It came up at least 100 times during the meeting about how much confidence we had in each other and how talented we all believed we were. We just had to put it all together and put it on the field. If there was a turning point up to this point in the season, that would be it."

Texas has since reeled off eight straight wins, including a sweep of nationally ranked Baylor and archrival Oklahoma.

No small part of what hurt Texas in the early going was its spotty defensive play. The team was averaging more than two fielding errors per game before Street took over the hot corner in the Baylor series. Unlike football, where the defense is almost always ahead of the offense in the early going (or, maybe it just seems that way at the Forty Acres), the fielding typically lags behind the hitting on the diamond. Because the NCAA has restricted the hours that baseball teams were once allowed in the fall, a team's defense may not start to gel until mid-season.

Junior Justin Simmons, last year's pitching ace who boasted a 16-1 mark, was mired in a month-long slump that saw him lose three of four (losses to Cal State Fullerton, Southwest Texas State and Texas Tech dropped his record to 2-4 by the end of March). In all fairness, his infield let him down against the Red Raiders in an outing that saw four Texas errors.

But now Simmons has shown signs of his former self, getting untracked in an 11-3 win over Baylor while Garrido said his no-decision start in Sunday's win against OU was his best of the year. While Simmons' struggled early, USC-transfer J.P. Howell emerged as Texas' most reliable hurler with a 6-0 mark. Street is 3-0 on the season and now holds the school record for saves at 20.

Garrido has tinkered with the lineup in the early going, but no move has been more productive offensively than penciling LF Eric Sultemeier into the No. 3 slot in the batting order. The junior has been the Sultan of Swat since making the move on March 22. Heading into this past weekend's OU series, Sultemeier upped his overall batting average by 54 points (.354) and was hitting .422 in league play.

It all adds up to a team that, at times this season, was down but not daunted. It's a group that's been there before and seems to have located last season's swagger.

Texas now faces a pivotal weekend series at No. 8 Nebraska, the only team that has seriously challenged the Horns for the Big 12 title these past two seasons. The Horns round out league play by hosting woeful Kansas State (April 25-27), by traveling to Kansas (May 2-4) and then wrapping up the regular season slate against Texas A&M (the Friday game is schedule for College Station while the Saturday and Sunday contests are slated for the Disch).

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