The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown
Baseball. Is. Back.
The Big 12 sent three representatives to Globe Life Field to kick off the new season of play, with each participating in this year’s College Baseball Showdown. They ultimately posted a losing record against Southeastern Conference teams, going 3-6, but the relative success of each Big 12 team should be viewed in light of not only the triumphs of other teams involved, but also the context of what a team’s performance on Opening Weekend means for the rest of the season.
Remember, just two years ago, a Big 12 team (Texas) went 0-3 in this very same tournament before almost winning the national championship just four months later.
So, what did teams do well, what needs to be fixed, and what are areas that still leave fans unsatisfactorily unsure about the future? These answers and more below.
No. 20 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Win vs. No. 37 Mizzou, 5-3
Loss vs. No. 13 Vanderbilt, 9-11
Loss vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 1-18
Overall Record: 1-2
What a difference an offseason can make.
In the 2022 Stillwater Regional, relief pitchers gave up 31 runs to finalize the team’s early departure from last year’s NCAA Tournament. This year, the Cowboys’ bullpen has already shown signs that this may no longer be an issue.
Making his collegiate debut, Drew Blake tossed two scoreless innings of no-hit baseball and picked up the win over Mizzou. In that game, Blake’s performance was supplemented by three more scoreless innings by other young hurlers from the bullpen. Righty Isaac Stebens did the same the next day, giving up just two hits and no walks across the game’s final four innings.
Yes, the bullpen struggled against Arkansas on Day 3 of the tournament, signaling that the Cowboys likely need to develop one or two more arms to a higher caliber of play. But even then, two more relievers—Evan O’Toole and Kade Shatwell—showed potential for a higher ceiling than previously expected.
The starters on the mound have some work to do, totaling a combined 15 hits, 15 earned runs, and 19.29 ERA on the weekend. Thankfully for the Cowboys, however, they appear to have solid backup from relievers obviously capable of mitigating the damage whenever possible.
The Oklahoma State offense can be best categorized as a feast-or-famine situation. And while the highs are impressive, the inconsistencies are more than enough to make me weary of this team’s offensive prospects moving forward.
On one hand, when the Cowboys make contact, they smash the ball — hard. They batted a solid .467 with runners in scoring position against Vanderbilt, including a .375 lead-off average that was complemented by an even .500 on advancement opportunities.
But, as with many things that seem too good to be true, Oklahoma State’s offensive successes were starkly contrasted by the team’s failures. The Cowboys struck out a whopping 39 times, making it clear that Oklahoma State needs to take an introspective look at its at-the-plate approach. A lackluster showing against the Razorbacks—marred by a .167 overall batting average and the seven different batters who failed to get on base even once—further signaled that there may be more struggles below the surface.
Whether this ‘go big or go home’ approach will pay off long-term is one thing, but starting the season on the right foot today should be of some importance as well.
One question going into opening weekend was the status of the left side of Oklahoma State’s infield. For now, it appears that we may need to wait another week to find an answer.
With the departure of Jake Thompson, a two-year starter at left field with a conference-leading batting average to boot, it’s unsurprising that head coach Josh Holliday let three different players take a stab at the position over the course of the weekend. Freshman Beau Sylvester did well offensively against Vanderbilt, but his hitless performance against Arkansas and nonappearance versus Mizzou suggests that Holliday isn’t quite sold on the kid yet.
Nolan McLean’s transition into the role of go-to closer also opened a gap at third base, though no clear heir apparent has yet risen from among the Cowboys’ deep roster.
Make no mistake, Oklahoma State’s left side certainly didn’t perform poorly this weekend. But even still, this is an area to monitor as the season progresses, as nobody is quite sure whether the newer position players will be able to fill the shoes of their predecessors.
No. 38 Texas Longhorns
Loss vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 2-3
Loss vs. No. 37 Mizzou, 5-6
Loss vs. No. 13 Vanderbilt, 2-12
Overall Record: 0-3
For all of their struggles, the Longhorns deserve credit for continuing to battle until the final pitch of the ninth inning.
Across its three games, Texas did not lead a single time. But, even with their 0-2 start to the weekend, the boys in burnt orange lost by only two combined runs, just falling short against preseason darling Arkansas—whom Texas held scoreless for eight innings—and breakout-surprise Mizzou, a team that needed a walk-off in the bottom of the ninth to secure its win.
Much of this resilience came from the Longhorns’ starting weekend rotation. The openers on the bump combined for only nine innings, a number that they probably need to work on increasing, but struck out 12 and gave up only three earned runs. Junior Lucas Gordon looked especially comfortable as a starter against the Razorbacks, walking only one batter in his 84-pitch, five-inning scoreless showing.
Yes, Game 3 against Vanderbilt was rough. But any team that can find the strength to keep swinging for the fences after committing five errors and giving up eight unearned runs (more on that next…) is owed at least a little bit of respect, if nothing else.
Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes.
By the time the weekend was said and done, the Longhorns had committed eight errors, contributing to a total of nine unearned runs. And, even more shockingly, the middle infield committed seven of those slip-ups. These same positions, plus the catcher, also allowed seven stolen bases and successfully turned only two double-plays.
Offensively speaking, the hiccups were just as apparent. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I’m comfortable saying that a batter should never pop-up a bunt attempt directly to the pitcher, especially when their team is down eight runs.
Also, under no circumstances should a player trot to first base before confirming that a well-hit ball is actually a homer. Dylan Campbell learned this the hard way on Sunday and was benched immediately after barely reaching second on what should have probably been a triple.
Texas has talent. But as long as they keep putting on sloppy performances on the diamond, they are going to have a hard time winning games. Tidying up this aspect of the game up needs to be priority No. 1 for the foreseeable future.
The Longhorns returned only three players from last season’s College World Series team, and although they have talent to fill the gaps, the new players’ inexperience is more than obvious. This presented itself in the form of poor at-bats, pitch-clock violations, and an inability to capitalize on momentum shifts.
Most notably, batters wearing burnt orange struggled at the plate, striking out 35 times across their three games. Many of those, though not technically ‘looking,’ were marked by half-effort swings that were ultimately too little too late. For example, Texas batted .000 with runners in scoring position against Vanderbilt and hit .091 two-out situations against Mizzou.
For the sake of transparency, it should be noted that Texas’ lineup was never truly finalized, with some younger players—such as catchers Rylan Galvan and Garrett Guillemette—earning crucial game-time experience by splitting weekend duties. Maybe this will help each player build their confidence and allow for more rapid development in the coming weeks. Maybe.
Until we know for sure, it’s too early to call inexperience a necessarily bad thing. But the Longhorns have their work cut out for them if they want to prove that their unfledged roster will not be a hindrance in the grand scheme of things.
No. 12 Texas Christian Horned Frogs
Win vs. No. 13 Vanderbilt, 11-4
Win vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 18-6
Loss vs. No. 37 Mizzou, 8-9
Overall Record: 2-1
An aggressive offense might just be the key to the Horned Frogs’ success this season.
In its first matchup against Vanderbilt, all nine batters in TCU’s lineup reached first base at least once, with each member notching either a hit or a run en route to their 11-4 walloping of Vanderbilt. In that same game, the Horned Frogs went 3-for-3 on stolen-base attempts.
Outfielder Elijah Nunez was not on most people’s radars entering the season, but after this past weekend, that’s going to dramatically change—and fast—after the junior batted an even .500 with four RBIs, four hits, and four runs. Nunez and Co. faced pitching of a much higher caliber than what they will see in the coming weeks—especially throughout preseason play—so if he can keep his momentum rolling as he settles into his newfound role as a two-hole anchor within the TCU lineup, expect Nunez’s already-impressive stats to do nothing but climb.
The upperclassman duo of right fielder Austin Davis and third baseman Brayden Taylor proved to be just as threatening, with the former posting a monstrous 1.200 slugging percentage against Mizzou and the latter batting a team-high .800 against Arkansas.
If a team can fill its lineup, top to bottom, with guys who are confident and experienced, they’ll be unstoppable.
Until its final game on Sunday against Mizzou, Texas Christian appeared to be near-unstoppable. But in their final appearance of the weekend, the Horned Frogs were out-hit, out-pitched, and on the losing end of the error totals.
Had Texas Christian not made five mistakes on the field on Sunday night, they probably could have swept the weekend with ease. Instead, though, they were forced to contemplate ‘what could have been’ on their bus ride back to Fort Worth, just one run away from the team’s first 3-0 start since 2020.
Could I be nit-picky and critique every little thing that they could have done better in their first two games? Sure. For example, I could point out that they need to leave fewer men on base, with a tournament-high 14 runners being stranded against Arkansas on Saturday. But in a game that Texas Christian won by 12 runs, am I really in the position to do the critiquing?
For this team and this team only, I’ll leave it at this: The coaches know what adjustments need to be made to iron out those errors, and I trust them to handle it on their own without my unsolicited two cents thrown into the mix.
The state of TCU’s pitching staff remains relatively unclear. Junior Ryan Vanderhei made his first start on the bump with the Horned Frogs on Friday after three seasons with Kansas, and while his five-inning, two-hit showing looks good at a glance, it is muddled by a higher-than-expected ERA and a mere three strikeouts. But, to his credit, the righty has a solid spinner-cutter-slider combo, and he demonstrated good chemistry with catcher Kurtis Byrne in the battery.
The bullpen posed similar questions. Relief man River Ridings’ low-velo fastball (90–92 mph) may set alarm bells ringing, but his great ball placement and even better movement in the zone shows promise — if he can harness it properly, that is.
Freshman Kole Klecker picked up his first-ever collegiate win on Saturday, striking out six and giving up only one earned run across over four innings of work. His big challenge will be minimizing opposing batters’ extra-base shots, which accounted for more than half of the hits he gave up. Cal transfer Sam Stoutenborough is in a similar position, as his game-leading seven strikeouts against Mizzou were impressive, but his elevated pitch count leaves much to be desired.
The arms are in Fort Worth and more than ready to throw, but whether they make smaller adjustments as the season progresses will determine if they are actually worth remembering.