MY TAKE ...
In the Longhorns' 2-2 series split with No. 23 Rice at the Disch this weekend, Texas' freshmen did freshmen things (mostly at the plate) and did some not-so freshmen things (such as David Hamilton's glove at SS and P Blair Henley's mound presence).
The starting pitching was strong. The relief in Games 1 and 4 as well as the top-of-the-order hitting - not so much.
But if there's one thing I've heard over and over from those who've played for new Texas coach David Pierce at other stops is that Pierce is a grinder who will work tirelessly to develop players. This first series was the starting point. If you're upset at a certain aspect of the team, take a snapshot of it now, and let's see where it is after next weekend's series vs UCONN or the following weekend's series at Stanford. Let's see if there's gradual improvement - as is typically the case with Pierce's teams.
Pierce has been to 16 straight NCAA postseason appearances as an assistant coach (2, Houston; 9, Rice) and head coach (3, Sam Houston State; 2, Tulane) and told his players he doesn't plan to see that streak end this season. The Horns have just one NCAA appearance in the last five years (2014).
Rice, UT's season-opening opponent, is ranked as high as No. 17, and Wayne Graham's club returns seven position players as well as several veteran pitchers from an NCAA Regional team that was the last one eliminated before the Super Regionals. Rice has made 22 straight appearances in the NCAA postseason.
After the first four games of the David Pierce era at Texas, a 2-2 split with the Owls, there was a lot of good and definitely a lot of room for improvement for the Longhorns.
I'll give you 5 THINGS TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT and 5 AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT.
But first I'll give you ...
THE PLAY OF THE WEEKEND ... BY LF TRAVIS JONES
In the top of the ninth inning in Game 2, with the potential tying run on the way home after Texas saw a 5-1 lead shrink to 5-4, junior LF Travis Jones threw a rocket to the plate to gun down the runner and end the game and give David Pierce his first win as Texas coach.
"He made a play," Pierce said of Jones. "That's what we talk about a lot. Don't be afraid to make that play. He came in, and there was no doubt in his mind he was going to make that throw, and it was going to help us win the game. He threw a strike when we absolutely needed it."
5 THINGS TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT
#1 ... TEXAS' STARTING PITCHING
Game 1 starter RHP Morgan Cooper:
With scouts from every Major League Baseball team in the audience, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound righty retired 12 batters in a row from the second to the fifth innings before running into some trouble in the sixth, which would be a familiar theme in Game 4 for Connor Mayes.
The redshirt junior walked the first batter in the sixth, then retired the next two. But he gave up a pair of two-out hits that put Rice up 2-1.
"I think he can be a lot sharper, especially with the slider, and he knows that," Pierce said. "But he gave us a chance to win, and that's what we ask from our starting pitchers."
Game 2 starter RHP Kyle Johnston:
The junior RHP went a complete six innings, giving up one run on seven hits with one walk and six strikeouts. He got the win after leaving the game with a 5-1 lead.
The question has never been Johnston's stuff. It's always been about his command. And he had command of Game 2. Rice didn't make things exciting in UT's 5-4 win until after Johnston was out of the game. More on that in a second.
Game 3 starter freshman RHP Blair Henley:
This may have been the most exciting pitching development of the weekend. After a rough first inning in which he gave up a walk and two hits that led to a run for Rice, Henley settled down and struck out EIGHT in his first college start.
The thing that grabs your attention about Henley is his mound presence. He's the boss out there. Henley gave up just one hit in his next four innings and retired seven in a row at one point.
"I thought (Blair) was placing the ball early in the (first inning) and really started trusting himself after that," Pierce said. "After that, I thought he was lights out."
Game 4 starter RHP Connor Mayes:
Mayes was solid through five innings with his only hiccup being two hits given up in the fourth inning, a single and then an RBI double to Rice's blazing hot hitting C Dominic DiCaprio, who finished the series with three doubles while going 4-for-9 with 6 RBIs and 2 runs scored.
Like Morgan Cooper in Game 1, Mayes began to run into trouble in the sixth.
Mayes gave up a four-pitch walk and proceeded to throw seven straight balls before giving up a single and getting pulled for reliever Jake McKenzie. Both of the men Mayes let on base in the sixth ended up scoring, so Mayes' final line showed him giving up 3 runs on 4 hits with 3 Ks and 2 walks.
#2 ... 1B KACY CLEMENS
Clemens was far-and-away the Longhorns' best hitter in the series, going 6-for-11 with 3 RBIs and 4 runs scored.
It shouldn't go unnoticed that Clemens was totally on top of his game at first base as well - scooping a couple one-hop throws to first from teammates and saving a run by knocking down Nick Kennedy's errant throw to first after fielding a bunt in Game 4.
#3 ... THE GLOVE OF FRESHMAN SS DAVID HAMILTON
Wow, does this kid make difficult plays in the hole look easy. He's a vacuum cleaner at short. He has to get better at the plate (2-for-12 with 1 RBI). But he hit the ball hard a few times - just right at someone.
Bottom line is Hamilton showed special fielding talent at short, including a jaw-dropping, deep-in-the-hole grounder he snared and delivered to first base for the out in Game 1.
#4 ... NEW FENCES AT THE DISCH (370 in left center, 365 in right center)
Texas hit three home runs in its first four games.
Kody Clemens had a solo shot in Game 1 ... Kacy Clemens had a solo shot in Game 3 ... and Bret Boswell had a solo shot in Game 4.
"I think we wish there were more guys on base when those home runs went out," Kacy Clemens said. "But the home run might get seen here more since the fence has moved in.
#5 ... RELIEF PITCHERS JON MALMIN AND BEAU RIDGEWAY
Both came in after freshman RHP Blair Henley went five innings in UT's Game 3 victory (6-1)
On a team with a severe shortage of left-handed pitching (only Malmin and sophomore Nick Kennedy), it was good to see Malmin throw two scoreless innings of relief - even if it came with Texas up 5-1 at the time.
Ridgeway also threw two innings of scoreless relief.
5 AREAS THAT NEED IMPROVEMENT
#1 ... TOP-OF-THE-LINEUP HITTING
The top four hitters in Texas' lineup were a combined 9-for-55 at the plate.
Leadoff hitter Travis Jones was 2-for-14 (.143)
No. 2 hitter Kody Clemens was 3-for-15 (.200)
No. 3 hitter Ryan Reynolds was 2-for-13 (.154)
No. 4 hitter Patrick Mathis was 2-for-13 (.154)
The four combined for 4 RBIs and 3 runs scored. Kacy Clemens produced 3 RBIs and 4 runs scored on his own.
"I felt like we really tightened up versus the breaking ball when you really have to let that pitch come to you," Pierce said. "We had to make some adjustments. They threw a ton of breaking balls, and they pitched backwards a lot. We knew that, but we just didn't handle it well."
#2 ... FRESHMEN STILL LEARNING ABOUT COLLEGE PITCHING
Freshmen Ryan Reynolds started at 3B and batted third in the lineup all four games, going 2-for-13 (.154), walking twice and striking out four times. Reynolds was 1-for-6 at the plate with two walks in Game 1 and 4 losses.
Freshman David Hamilton started at SS and batted ninth in all four games, going 2-for-12 (.167), striking out twice and walking once. Hamilton was 0-for-6 with two strikeouts in UT's Game 1 and 4 losses.
Freshman Austin Todd started at CF the first three games in the series and batted eighth in Games 1 and 2 and sixth in Game 3. He was 1-for-6 (.167) at the plate, although in UT's 5-4 Game 2 win, Todd was 1-for-1 with an RBI and a run scored and also drew two walks.
The bottom line is Rice threw a lot of breaking balls at the youngins, and they chased those pitches, rather than letting those pitches come to them.
#3 ... KILLER INSTINCT ... WITH MEN ON BASE, WITH TWO STRIKES, WITH TWO OUTS
Twice in Saturday's double-header, Texas had the bases loaded with nobody out and produced just one run out of those opportunities.
In Game 4 Sunday, trailing 6-1, Texas had men on second and third with two outs in the seventh, and David Hamilton flied out to right field. In the eighth, Texas had men on first and second with two outs, and Kacy Clemens hit into a fielder's choice.
After the series ended on Sunday, Pierce said, "We didn't fight with two strikes. We have to get better at that. Late in (Game 4), when we had something going both times in the last two innings, we had two outs both times. You have to come out with a clutch hit or hope somebody drives a ball. But we didn't get much going all day."
#4 ... RELIEF PITCHING OVERALL
Sophomore RHP Chase Shugart, junior RHP Jake McKenzie, sophomore LHP Nick Kennedy and sophomore RHP Beau O'Hara (in two different appearances - Game 2 and 4) all struggled.
David Pierce's experience as a pitching coach will be put to good work moving forward.
#5 ... TOO MUCH LEADOFF DAMAGE GIVEN UP
There were 13 times in four games Texas allowed the leadoff hitter to get on base and 13 runs were produced in six of those innings in which the leadoff man got on.
What was even more telling were the leadoff walks. There were five leadoff walks, and three of those innings produced eight Rice runs.
Here's a look at those three innings in which leadoff walks led to the most damage:
* Game 1 - 6th inning - Morgan Cooper leads off with a walk, and Rice goes on to score two runs, tying the game at 2-2 en route to a 3-2 Owls' victory.
* Game 3 - 1st inning - Blair Henley leads off with a walk and then gives up back-to-back singles as Rice takes a 1-0 lead before Texas roars back for a 6-1 win.
* Game 4 - 6th inning - Connor Mayes leads off with a walk and then gives up a single before three relievers (Jake McKenzie, Nick Kennedy and Tyler Schimpf) take turns at the Owls in a 5-run inning that breaks the game open in a 7-1 Owls' win.
IN CLOSING ... WITH KACY CLEMENS
"I wouldn't call it disappointing," Clemens said of the 2-2 series split with Rice. "We definitely had some spots where you saw some talent that is promising.
"A lot of guys got their feet wet this weekend and showed what they can do. Some need to improve. But there were bright spots, and that's definitely where we're going to focus moving forward.
"We just have to swing the bats better."
NEXT UP FOR TEXAS (2-2): ... at Sam Houston State (where David Pierce coached for three years - from 2012-14) on Wednesday at 6:30 pm
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