Texas Fights Back Into Omaha Contention
In 2019, a year removed from reaching the College World Series behind the bat of Kody Clemens, the Texas baseball team missed the Big 12 tournament, finishing dead last in the conference standings. The Longhorns were the only Big 12 baseball program sitting at home while the rest battled in Oklahoma City.
The 2020 season was filled with obvious hurdles of its own. Texas never played a conference game in the spring due to COVID, which cancelled the season after just 17 games.
“The thing that was most impressive with the group last year was that they did that. They focused one game at a time. We got better, had some setbacks in a couple of games, but we learned from those games. -David Pierce, Texas Head Coach
“I was really pleased with the start of our season last year, we were 14-3,” Texas head coach David Pierce said in an interview with College Baseball Nation. “The thing that was most impressive with the group last year was that they did that. They focused one game at a time. We got better, had some setbacks in a couple of games, but we learned from those games. If we had started poorly, I think you could utilize [the idea of treating every game like it could be your last], but since we started well, I think our players understand how to do it, take it one game at a time and not take anything for granted.”
In 2021, three years after their last postseason berth, the Texas Longhorns will look to build on the progress they made in 2020. The success Pierce and his squad seek this coming season starts with the high number of returnees from last year’s ball club.
Perhaps the most important of those returnees is first baseman Zach Zubia, who has been the team’s cleanup hitter for much of the past two seasons. In a shortened 2020 campaign, Zubia posted strong numbers: .288 batting average, three homers, 21 RBI and a .492 slugging percentage.
Another standout at the plate is outfielder Eric Kennedy, a player that Pierce believes could step into a role as a consistent hitter for his team. Kennedy saw the field more often than most freshmen in 2019, starting 46 games, batting .310 on the season.
“He creates havoc for a defense because he puts pressure on them,” said Pierce when talking about Kennedy. “His swing has gotten better. He’s got another year of experience of understanding plate discipline, knowing what he handles well, what he needs to lay off of.”
When it comes to leadership on this squad, there’s no question who most of the team will look to: catcher DJ Petrinksy. Petrinksy is entering his sixth season of college baseball and his fourth behind the plate at Texas. Injuries have kept the Magnolia, Texas, native from seeing much playing time recently, though he did look strong as he belted a home run in Houston’s Minute Maid Park this past February at the Shriners College Classic.
“He’s exceptional,” said Texas head coach David Pierce of Petrinsky. “Another guy who shows great leadership, understands the program, the philosophy. He’s got a calm demeanor about him. He’s a great leader for the other catchers like Silas Ardoin, who will play a lot as well.”
His presence will play no small role in the expected success on the mound for this Texas ball club. While the bullpen is slightly depleted due to the departures of four relievers, UTSA graduate transfer Palmer Wenzel will help out in relief.
The starting rotation has captured national attention, headlined by sophomore Ty Madden and freshman Pete Hansen. Both made tremendous strides this fall and are two of College Baseball Nation’s Top 50 prospects heading into the 2021 season.
Hansen emerged as a go-to reliever early on last season, finishing the abbreviated campaign with a 2-0 record and zero earned runs in 17 innings of work. Collegiate Baseball even included the 6’2 lefty on its list of freshman all-Americans.
“Pete is versatile,” said Pierce. “He was going to get his first start the weekend after COVID, when we were shut down. The first thing you think about with Pete is presence and command. He has a great mound presence, but he commands the baseball. He throws hard—he’s not an exceptionally hard thrower—but he commands the ball with three or four pitches.”
Every season now, grad transfers are the big names on the market. They have experience, talent, and are often looking for new opportunities to conclude their college career. This upcoming season, Texas has one of the best grad transfers on the market in outfielder Mike Antico, a former standout at St. John’s who was named the 2020 Big East Preseason Player of the Year. With starting centerfielder Duke Ellis gone to the MLB, Antico will be asked to make an immediate impact, and he will have some big shoes to fill. Ellis was well known on the Forty Acres, characterized by his aggressive play, ability to reach nearly every fly ball and a lightheartedness that could be seen even in the heat of a crucial moment. Antico closely resembles Ellis, especially in his base stealing abilities. Antico stole 10 bases in 13 starts this past season, and in 2019, finished second in the conference in that stat category, swiping 20 bases.
“When we lost Duke and added Mike, it brought a big boost into our lineup,” said Pierce. “He’s experienced. He’s played in the Big East for four years, so he’s pretty excited about being here. He’s not overwhelmed. I think he’ll be a good fit in our lineup.”
Regardless of who is out in the field, the big question heading into the season surrounds the schedule. As every coach in the country will tell you, playing a conference-only schedule versus a regular schedule is a world of difference. For Texas, playing in the Big 12 conference, it does appear that the spring will look very similar to schedules’ in years past. On Tuesday, Nevada released its complete schedule for 2021, with a road trip to Austin on April 13-14 highlighting the non-conference slate.
There’s still a lot of unknown right now. We feel pretty confident in the Big 12 administration as well as college baseball, that they're going to give us the best opportunity to play. -David Pierce
Pierce was tight-lipped when it came to details of the schedule but did express his confidence in both the university and the Big 12 in their goal to play a typical schedule this spring.
“Right now, we’re moving ahead as planned from the previous years in scheduling the 2021 season,” said Pierce. “There’s still a lot of unknown right now. We feel pretty confident in the Big 12 administration as well as college baseball, that they're going to give us the best opportunity to play. The exact part of that? Couldn’t tell you. I can tell you right now, we’re in discussions weekly and the goal is to move forward as planned and adjust from there.”
The idea of “moving ahead” despite the unknowns is one that can be attributed to the culture within Pierce’s program. Rather than focusing on what is going on around them, the various reports regarding the schedule coming out, and other distractions, the team looks within. The upperclassmen lead the way, with the freshmen following close behind.
“When you talk about the younger players moving into their second, third years, I think of the word culture,” said Pierce. “Culture is a big buzzword right now. Culture is about being an extension of our staff, being an extension of our leadership. You can see it with these guys of how they’re going about the day-to-day and how the younger players are seeing how the older players work. When you create that culture, that message gets passed down. There’s a message that every one of them feel responsible for.”
The bottom line for this Texas team, playing in a conference known for great pitching? Finding ways to push runs across the plate.
“The thing that you have to understand with the offense is that results come and go. It is much more about having the right approach, the right mentality finding ways to score than what your batting average is. I think we have some guys that can put pressure on defenses to put the ball in play, or steal bases, and then there’s some punch in the lineup.
“In the Big 12, the kind of ball that we play, you can score a runner from first base whether it's a ball over the wall or a ball hit to the gap. . . . Your goal needs to be to have the ability to score multiple ways. If you're only definite of the three-run homer, you’re going to lose some ball games. If you're only definite of the speed guys, you’re going to lose some ball games. Our goal is to be as balanced 1-9 as possible and be able to score multiple ways.”
Texas exits the fall ranked twelfth in College Baseball Nation's Top 25.