Baseball: Horns on an early-season roll

Since dropping a 4-3 decision to Louisiana-Lafayette two weeks ago, the Texas baseball team is on a roll. The Horns' 8-2 series-sweep-clinching win over Loyola-Marymount on Sunday provided UT with consecutive win No. 9 and victory No. 12 on the young season.

With slightly less than one-fourth of its season in the record books, Texas stands at 12-2 overall (although the two season-opening wins over D-III Concordia do not count in the NCAA's post-season invitation and seeding deliberations), its best start in Augie Garrido's six years in Austin and the best start overall for a Longhorn team since a 15-0 opening run in '95. Garrido's guys have had a couple of similar fast starts. UT opened the '97 season at 17-4 before dropping 18 of its final 30 games to miss post-season play for the first time in 19 seasons while the '00 squad jumped out of the gate at 16-3 and went on to win 46 games and make the Longhorns' first College World Series appearance in seven seasons.

Which end of that spectrum will this fast-starting Texas team end up on? Well, almost certainly better than the '97 group, which simply did not have the arms to compete favorably with quality competition. Burt Hooton's '97 staff finished with an astronomically high 5.78 ERA. Through 14 games this season, Frank Anderson's staff has a 2.35 cumulative ERA and in two previous seasons, pitching coach Anderson's hurlers registered ERAs of 3.30 and 3.17. Based on early returns, this year's staff should post similar, if not better, numbers. Nine Longhorn pitchers currently sport ERAs below 2.06, including three starters -- Justin Simmons (3-0, 1.50 ERA), Brad Halsey (2-0, 2.00 ERA) and Alan Bomer (3-0, 2.05) -- who will probably be a part of UT's weekend rotation. True freshman Huston Street (0.00 ERA, 2 saves) has shown early signs that he is suited for the closer role.

The '00 squad reached Omaha by combining great pitching and solid although not spectacular hitting. If this Texas teams hopes for a return trip to the CWS, that same formula must apply and so far, it has. Matter of fact, the guys currently wearing the Orange and White are bashing the ball compared to their predecessors of recent vintage. Through 14 games, Texas is hitting .341 and has plated 136 runs. The Horns are on a scoring pace to surpass the run production total (545 in 67 games) of the '93 squad, the last Texas team to win a game in Omaha.

Offensive production is evident throughout the starting line-up as well as off the bench. Ten Texas players are currently batting .300 or above with 2B Tim Moss leading the way among regulars with his .478 mark. Moss earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors Monday after turning in five straight multi-hit games. LF Eric Sultemeier leads the team in RBI with 15, followed closely by C/DH Ryan Hubele with 14 and true freshmen SS Michael Hollimon and 3B J.D. Reininger with 13 and 12, respectively. The Horns early season offensive explosion has come largely without the benefit one of its only proven power hitters. 1B Jeff Ontiveros struggled from the plate for the better part of the early season but has shown some recent signs of life, collecting his first homer of the year in Sunday's win over Loyola-Marymount and raising his average to .222 with his three-for-four performance. While the status of suspended SS Omar Quintanilla, the team's '01 batting leader, is still uncertain, he is expected to eventually return to the line-up, adding to UT's offensive depth.

After a Tuesday game with A&M-Corpus Christi, Texas will face its first conference test this weekend in a three-game series with Baylor. The Bears are 7-4 overall with a sweep in Los Angeles of then-No. 6 Southern Cal among those seven wins. Baylor represents UT's toughest opponent since the three-game Astros College Classic, where the Horns won just one game. Although this weekend's set, with Friday's game in Waco and the Saturday and Sunday contests in Austin, will be just the first of nine conference series, it should provide a good early indication of whether this fast-starting UT team is a league and national contender, like in '00, or a pretender, like in '97.

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