Play Ball! Horns Primed For Championship Run

One. Two. Three. That's been Texas' order of finish in three previous College World Series, runners-up last season in Omaha while winning it all in 2002. And if pre-season prognostications are correct, Augie Garrido's group will again reach the championship game this June.

The Texas baseball team eyes its home opener Tuesday, 2:30 p.m., against UT-Pan American with the intention of not only returning to Omaha (that's a given in Austin) but also picking up that championship hardware it left behind in the bittersweet aftermath of finishing just second nationally. Key to last year's Big 12 championship was an overpowering pitching staff and the best cluster of closers in college baseball. Despite key losses, the Horns still should have enough mound strength to make a serious run at a CWS championship. But hitting and a stellar outfield may prove to be the Longhorns' biggest weapons in 2005.

Former All-American Huston Street, one of last season's top collegiate closers, is now tossing balls in the minor leagues with the Oakland A's organization. Former All-American hurler J.P. Howell also opted for the minors following his junior season while Justin Simmons, the winning pitcher during Texas' last national championship game, has completed his eligibility.

The returning staff took a serious blow when junior Sam LeCure, a preseason All-American and projected ace, was ruled academically ineligible in mid-January. For now, pitching coach Tom Holliday has an arsenal of highly talented but largely inexperienced pitchers in his quest for seven-plus innings of quality work. In fact, this past weekend's starting trio of Kyle McCulloch, Randy Boone and Buck Cody had combined for but 12 starts between them before the Horns' season-opening sweep at San Diego State.

McCulloch wore the mantle of game one starter as the Horns began the 2005 campaign in fine fashion with a 9-3 win Friday. The Horns jumped to a 3-0 lead heading into the bottom of the fifth before the Aztecs knotted the score with three runs of their own. But Texas responded with six runs during the final two frames to seal the deal against coach Tony Gwynn's ball club. Reliever Clayton Stewart picked up the win while J. Brent Cox, considered this year's premiere reliever, also made an appearance.

Boone turned in five solid innings and was credited with the win on Saturday, recording eight strikeouts, allowing just one walk and one run, while scattering six hits during a 13-5 Texas stroll. Eight different Longhorns posted base hits as the team totaled 16 safeties for the game. C Taylor Teagarden's round-tripper in the fifth was UT's first home run of the season.

Texas completed the sweep Sunday with a 7-0 shutout. Cody was credited with the win after fanning three, walking two and surrendering five hits in five and one-third innings. Will Crouch added a two-run homer on Sunday to complement his home run in Saturday's ballgame. Stewart came on in relief in the top of the sixth with two runners aboard, one out and Texas leading 3-0. The senior retired the next two batters to help preserve the season's first shutout.

Friday starter McCulloch is a flame-throwing, right-hander and also has the ability to bring his 90 mph heat for seven innings. The sophomore was undefeated in 2004 (7-0) in eight starts with a 3.25 ERA. Alongside McCulloch is another fastball pitcher in LHP Buck Cody. While Cody relied on the fastball most of the time as a closer last year, he's not afraid to release a curveball on occasion. Cody finished the season 1-2 with two saves and a 1.81 ERA in 44.2 innings. Boone is a right-hander with potential to throw up to 90 mph, but this third-spot pitcher features a variety of above-average pitches, including a fastball, curve, slider and straight change. He finished '04 with a 3-1 mark and a 3.27 ERA in 44 innings of work. Out of the 'pen, it's too early to say that Cox will make Orangebloods forget Street, but the junior rightie turned in a Street-like performance in California, shutting out the Aztecs and striking out six of the nine batters he faced. Cox filled in as the Longhorn closer last season while Street recovered from injury, picking up five saves. For the season, he finished 6-2 with a 2.12 ERA.

With three returning starters, the outfield should be the gem of the 2005 Texas team. Sophomore CF Drew Stubbs will be Texas' main gun, likely hitting in the third spot. The pre-season All-American batted .301 in his first campaign, adding eight homers and 28 stolen bases in 2004. The 2005 season should again show Orangebloods why the Houston Astros drafted Stubbs in the third round of the '03 draft. Sophomore Carson Kainer will take the field beside Stubbs in left field. Kainer finished last year with a .335 batting average, the highest among returning players, and a .411 on-base percentage after emerging as a starter during the second month last season. Veteran Dooley Prince and newcomer Calvin Beamon will cover right-field. Prince proved to be a clutch performer in last year's postseason and has a knack for reaching base safely. He struck out only 18 times in 142 at bats en route to building up a .412 on-base percentage to lay claim to the leadoff spot in the batting order.

Stubbs and Prince went 3-for-5 during Saturday's win while Kainer paced his club with two RBI in both Friday's opener and Sunday's contest.

The power in the order comes from preseason All-American catcher Teagarden, who will likely bat clean-up after knocking out a team-leading 10 homeruns last year with a .273 batting average. Teagarden finished the season as the only Longhorn to play in all 73 games, and the junior will probably equal that feat this year, seeing the lineup as a catcher, first baseman and designated hitter.

Texas' infield strength will come from seniors Robby Hudson and Seth Johnston. Hudson batted .287 last year and now moves to second base while Johnston has made the move to shortstop. Johnston will bat near the top of the order after hitting .296 and blasting seven homers last year. Senior David Maroul and Navarro transfer Clay Van Hook will battle for the third base job and likely hit in the lower part of the order. Maroul made several starts in '04 but batted just .224 last season. Crouch and Chance Wheeless are projected to bat in the middle of the order and fight for the 1B/DH job. Crouch played in 21 games last season, totaling just 31 at-bats (.258 average) while Wheeless saw action in 26 games, making 62 plate appearances (.226 average).

The home opener Tuesday is one of 12 straight ballgames for the Horns at Disch-Falk Field.

(Bill Frisbie and Clendon Ross contributed to this article.)


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