Baseball: Horns No. 2 in Big 12 with 12 to play

With two wins in three tries in Norman over the weekend, Texas moved into second place in the conference standings heading into the season's final month of play. The Horns improved to 31-10 overall and 9-6 in league play, tied with A&M percentage points behind first-place 7-4 Oklahoma State.

After dropping the series opener to Oklahoma 6-5 (the fourth time in five conference series that UT lost the Friday game), the Horns dominated the Sooners in a Sunday doubleheader before a season-high Crimson-clad crowd. Texas silenced the OU fans by shutting down the Oklahoma bats.

In Sunday's first game, an 8-2 Longhorn win, starter Justin Simmons worked 7-2/3 innings, surrendering six hits and two runs before giving way to Huston Street, who retired all four Sooner batters he faced. Simmons picked up his 10th win of the season in 10 starts. The 10-0 sophomore lefty sports a 1.95 ERA and is the front-runner for Big 12 Pitcher of the Year honors as well as a All-America candidate. Baseball America just last week named Simmons a Midseason All-American.

In the final game of the series, an 8-1 Texas win, Alan Bomer went 7-1/3 innings, giving up just five hits and one run before Brantley Jordan and Street closed out OU over the final inning-and-two-thirds. Bomer earned his fifth win of the season vs. two losses and improved his ERA to 4.08.

Want an idea of how good Frank Anderson's staff is this spring? Well, Bomer's 4.08 ERA is the highest on the team. The other 12 hurlers that have pitched for the Horns have ERAs ranging from Buck Cody and Daniel Muegge's 0.00 to Ray Clark's 3.69. In between are Street (1.19), Eugene Espineli (1.27), Justin Merle (1.50), Ryan France (1.69, although he is out for the season following elbow surgery), Simmons (1.95), Kevin Frizzell (2.25), normal Friday starter Brad Halsey (2.73), Jordan (3.29) and Tim McGough (3.43). Overall, UT's staff ERA stands at a best-in-the-nation 2.53.

Halsey and Simmons form a strong one-two punch at the top of the rotation, but the No. 3 spot has been less solid. Bomer and Clark have each filled the spot with mixed results. The Horns also have yet to settle on a full-time closer, with Street the No. 1 candidate, although Bomer in recent weeks has equaled Street's save total of two.

The OU series not only highlighted UT's generally strong pitching, it showcased the Horns' bat-swingers as well. Jeff Ontiveros put his name at the top of the Texas career home run list in Friday's 6-5 loss with the 44th long ball of his three-plus seasons in the Orange and White. The senior slugger put some distance between him and now No. 2 Brooks Kieschnick with dinger No. 45, a grand slam in Sunday's first game. Ontiveros, who had a miserable start to his season, now has 10 HRs and has improved his batting average to .316.

The hottest bats on the team, though, belong to recently returned Omar Quintanilla and season-long standout Tim Moss. Since his return from NCAA suspension on March 10, Quintanilla in 20 games is batting a team-high .381 with 21 RBI. Moss, who has started all 41 games this season, is just behind Quintanilla at .378. The sophomore second baseman has 11 doubles and a team-high five triples, is third on the team with 29 RBI, and has 26 steals in 30 attempts, the most steals by a Longhorn since Wylie Campbell swiped 43 bases in 1996. Like Simmons, Moss earned Baseball America Midseason All-America mention last week.

The return of Brandon Fahey has also given the Texas O a boost. Fahey has started 14 games in the outfield since returning from an early-season hand injury and at .357 is third on the team among regulars in batting average. The junior already has nine doubles in just 70 plate appearances.

As a team, the Horns are hitting .314.

For Texas to make a run at the Big 12 title, those bats, and the arms of the Longhorn pitchers, must remain hot. The Horns have four conference series remaining, with league No. 1 Okie-State, No. 2 A&M, No. 5 Nebraska and No. 7 K-State. The Big 12 stretch run begins for Texas this weekend in Manhattan, where the Horns will face a dangerous Wildcats ballclub. K-State is 6-6 in conference but the 'Cats took two of three from both the Huskers and the Red Raiders on back-to-back weekends before dropping two of three this past weekend to the Aggies in College Station.

Not only will the final month of the season determine UT's Big 12 fate, the closing 16-game stretch of the regular season will also largely determine the Horns' post-season fate, at least in terms of whether that post-season will include a Regional at the Disch. Reaching the 40-win plateau with nine-plus wins, plus a top three league finish, would go a long way in ensuring that the Longhorn path to Omaha runs through Austin.

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