Texas Baseball: Numbered Among The Best?

How does the current No. 1 rated Texas baseball team stack up against previous Longhorn national champions? Coach <B>Augie Garrido's </B>pitching staff is the strongest at Texas since <B>Roger Clemens</B> and crew were mowing down foes 21 years and, statistically, is one of the best ever to wear the Burnt Orange. The team's batting...well...that's a different story.

Most old-schoolers would concur that, at tournament time, the single most important factor undergirding a team's chances for success is the quality and depth of its staff. The argument here is that the current crop of Longhorn hurlers may be a staff for the ages. Granted, there is still a lot of baseball left to be played against competition that will improve incrementally. But if the current numbers hold up, the 2004 Longhorns will have posted the lowest team ERA since 1975 (1.92).

Compare, also, the current ERA against previous UT national championship seasons:

YEAR ERA

2004 2.48 (through May 10)

2002 2.82

1983 2.72

1949 NA

1950 NA

Texas did not compile team statistics until 1967, so pitching data for the 1949 and 1950 is unavailable. The Southwest Conference champion 1970 Longhorns that finished third in the nation, meanwhile, set the school record for the lowest ERA at 1.88.

The 1983 squad still holds the school record for most single-season wins (66) and most games played (80).

What many folks don't realize is that Clemens was basically the third or fourth starter on that 1983 national champion squad. The Rocket never earned first team all-conference honors and ultimately came into his own (as in, a league of his own) when he get to the majors. The ace that year was All-American Calvin Schiraldi (drafted by the New York Mets) who went 14-2 in his final campaign with a 1.74 ERA. Next in line that season was All-Southwest Conference selection Kirk Killingsworth (12-3, 2.56 ERA) and Mike Capel (13-1, 2.98 ERA). Clemens rounded out the Fab Four with his 13-5 mark and 3.04 ERA. (Clemens, some of you may recall, was on the mound during Texas' CWS win over Alabama. It's funny the minutia of details one recalls the moment you know your team is going to win the championship: with Texas clinging to a 4-3 lead, the Crimson Tide's Fermin Lake popped up to jubilant SS Mike Brumley who not only waived off other infielders for the last out but shook off the inevitable comparisons to his legendary predecessor Spike Owen.)

This year's team boasts three All-American hurlers, starting with LHP J.P. Howell. As a junior, the USC transfer led the Big 12 Conference in wins (10) and was second in the league in overall ERA (2.52). With Friday's 4-2 win over Kansas, Howell notched a personal best 11th win of the year (against one loss in 17 appearances). His ERA now stands at a wicked 1.77.

Justin Simmons has quietly returned to winning form (9-2, 3.94 ERA) after a subpar 2003 season. Simmons registered a nation's best 16-1 mark during his All-American sophomore campaign and was the winning pitcher in Texas' national championship win over South Carolina.

Ace reliever Huston Street could run for mayor of Austin. (Then again, who doesn't run for mayor of Austin?) Point is: Huston would probably win. He certainly has been a winner on the mound. Street registered three saves in as many days this past weekend to become the Big 12's all-time leader in that category. He sports a 1.53 ERA in 21 appearances and 35-1/3 innings pitched.

The bullpen is steadied by the likes of junior Buck Cody (1.62 ERA, 21 appearances) and sophomores J. Brent Cox (4-1, 1.81 ERA -- and that's after giving up five runs in the ninth vs. KU on Saturday) and Sam LeCure (7-1, 2.30 ERA).

Pitching. That's the good news.

If Texas has an Achilles Heel, it is that the team is batting just .287.

"Mathematically, we're not real impressive," Garrido said recently.

Only four Texas teams in the past 30 years (1994, 1976-78) finished with lower averages. The 1976 won the SWC but, with anemic bats, those other Longhorn other squads were SWC also-rans. The 2002 national champions, meanwhile, batted .304 and set the Texas standard for most home runs (68) and most total bases (1,186). Strictly from a numbers standpoint, this team is more similar to the pitching-rich but light-hitting 2000 Longhorn squad that went two-and-Q in Omaha than to the team that took the title in '02.

1B Curtis Thigpen currently leads the Horns in eight offensive categories while batting .350 with a .500 slugging percentage. Heading into this season, it was clear that Thigpen was going to need an offensive supporting cast. Bear in mind that not only did Texas replace all three starting outfielders from last year, each member of that 2003 trio held one of the top seven positions on the team in terms of hitting. By mid-season, however, two freshmen outfielders have literally stepped up to the plate in 2004.

LF Carson Kainer tops all UT batters with his .394 average. CF Drew Stubbs, named Midseason All-American last month, boasts the teams third best average (.309) with 56 hits in 181 at-bats. He ranks third in the Big 12 with a team-best 23 stolen bases and is fourth on the team in total bases (84).

While the hits have been (relatively) few and far between, they have been clutch. After all, this team does not fashion a 46-8 record against quality competition if the boys couldn't swing the stick. Texas' bats have typically come alive this season after the fifth inning, as nearly half (20) of Longhorn victories have been come-from-behind affairs.

Bottom line: the 2004 Texas team finds a way to win.


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