Baseball: Horns off to inauspicious league start

Before the '02 season, <B>Augie Garrido</B> believed his latest bunch had the potential to be the best Longhorn club in his six years in Austin.

"After going through fall workouts, I think this year's team has the potential to be the best club I have had since arriving in Austin," the Texas head coach said. "We now have more than one Division I athlete at every position on the field. In addition, this team has a cohesiveness about it that shows the markings of a championship-championship-caliber squad."

With just over a third of the season complete, those words now seem overly optimistic. The Horns early season conference misery continued over the past weekend in Lubbock, where Texas dropped two of three to the previously win-less (in Big 12 play) Red Raiders. Texas managed just a single win, taking Saturday's game 6-3 but falling far short of Tech on Friday 10-5 and again on Sunday 9-0.

The series loss to the Raiders, the sixth time in Garrido's six years that the Horns have lost two to Tech, dropped Texas to a miserable 2-4 in conference, its worst league start since '98. That '98 team also opened with Baylor and Tech, went 1-5 in those two series, finished 11-18 in the conference (eighth in the league) and missed the post-season (the second straight year the Horns failed to advance even to the conference tourney). UT's best league mark under Garrido, 19-10, came in '00 following a 5-1 start. Last year's club, which finished third in the conference with a 19-11 record, opened up 4-2.

At 2-4 so far this season, Texas comes in behind 3-0 Oklahoma, 5-1 A&M and 4-2 Baylor in the current league standings. The Horns are tied with the Red Raiders for fourth, but Okie State has yet to play a Big 12 game and conference co-favorite Nebraska, a team Texas has lost seven of nine to over the last three seasons, is at 1-2. With Iowa State no longer fielding a team, the league is down to 10 clubs, and the conference round robin schedule totals 27 games, down from the 30-game sked played since the inception of the league, leaving UT with 21 Big 12 games remaining.

This may sound like a broken record, but the losses in Lubbock make this statement ready for another spin: this weekend's Missouri series is an absolute must-win for the Horns if they hope to challenge for the top spot in the Big 12. Another series loss and Texas will have dug itself such a huge conference hole one-third of the way through the league schedule that it may prove impossible to climb out of.

Can the Horns win two of three or, ideally, sweep the Tigers in Columbia? Yes, but only with vastly improved defense and pitching, the two areas that Garrido's recent teams have been the strongest. In four losses to Baylor and Tech, Texas committed 13 errors, leading to 10 unearned runs. In those four setbacks, the UT staff gave up an astronomical 50 hits and 35 runs. Even with outstanding hitting, which for the Horns has been largely nonexistent over the last two weeks, similar numbers in the future will prove difficult to overcome.

Notes: UT (16-6, 2-4) takes on TCU Tuesday night at the Dell Diamond before heading to Columbia for a three-game series this weekend with the Tigers, 0-3 in the conference after getting swept by OU. The Horned Frogs beat the Horns 8-1 at Enron in February. . . . Although the conference results so far leave much to be desired, Texas has fared far better against non-conference competition (albeit relatively weak competition) to this point than in recent years, an important factor in possibly landing an NCAA subregional in May if the team can turn around its conference record and finish near the top of the Big 12 standings. Aside from the two wins vs. D-III Concordia, the Horns are 12-2 in non-league games, UT's best start in Garrido's Texas tenure. . . . Despite the four losses in six games, the Horns remained ranked among the top 20 in the national polls released Monday. Texas is No. 19 in both the Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America Top 25.

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