The importance of the upcoming three-game weekend series between Houston and Texas goes without saying.
Both teams enter with high expectations for this matchup set for March 5-7, fully aware of what a series victory would mean. Besides the fact that beating an in-state opponent always excites fans, winning a series such as this one would improve either team’s NCAA Tournament resume. Houston could especially benefit as their strength of schedule is currently ranked 159 in the country.
Texas enters the matchup coming off a momentum-boosting four-game series at home against BYU, which saw the Horns go 3-1. Following the State Farm College Baseball Showdown, many were beginning to wonder when Texas’ bats would come alive after striking out 46 times over the first three games of the season. The Longhorns answered those queries, outscoring the Cougars 30-12 over four games. The bats stayed hot in a 12-1 midweek win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi as well as in a 10-3 rout of Texas State the following day.
Houston has looked just as strong, if not stronger at the plate facing mid-major pitching, scoring 10-plus runs in a single game four times already. The Cougars opened the 2021 campaign with a three-game sweep over Texas Southern before battling the Islanders of Texas A&M CC for the next four contests, coming up victorious in three of those. Houston also fell to Lamar 2-0 in a midweek contest, and enters the weekend on a two-game losing skid. A midweek duel with Texas A&M and series at Texas State and Oklahoma follow, but this three-game set at home against Texas, ranked No. 27 in College Baseball Nation’s Week 2 rankings, is a prime opportunity to truly test Houston’s talent.
That talent is evident both on the mound and at the plate, as the Cougars boast a hard-hitting lineup from top to bottom. First baseman Ryan Hernandez, who has been hitting in the cleanup spot, went 6-for-8 in the opening doubleheader against Texas Southern, and just in front of him, right fielder Steven Rivas has been a nightmare for opposing pitching staffs, having swatted six home runs in addition to a batting average of .452. Even Houston’s No. 8 hitter, freshman third baseman Will Pendergrass, has shown signs of power, hitting two home runs and tallying three RBI in a 14-1 win over Texas A&M CC on February 27.
The Longhorns have a solid offense, though they do not possess Houston’s power-hitting ability. Instead, Texas has found ways to draw walks, and make contact, allowing runners to score on long fly balls, fielder’s choices and hard-hit ground balls. Right fielder Douglas Hodo III leads the team with an average of .421 and an on-base percentage of .536. Third baseman Cam Williams has been Texas’ power hitter, with a team-high nine RBI and three homers through eight games, though center fielder Mike Antico has made a case for himself, as he enters the matchup with at least one hit in six of the last seven games. Antico, who transferred from St. John’s, does not swing for the fences often, but is a consistent leadoff hitter who finds a way to reach base.
Neither team will be able to pitch around these lineups, considering their strength from top to bottom. Texas’ Ty Madden, a preseason all-American, will get the ball Friday night after carrying a no-hitter through seven innings against BYU. On the other side, power left-hander Robert Gasser will start for Houston. Gasser mixes his speeds well, with a high fastball and some excellent off-speed pitches, notably a solid changeup, as well. Saturday’s matchup should pit Houston’s Ben Sears, who is 1-0 on the season with an ERA of 3.00, against Texas’ Pete Hansen. Hansen did not start on the opening weekend, but did start in game one of the BYU series and against Texas State, as he was still trying to get settled after missing a couple of weeks of preseason practice. (UPDATE: Texas Head Coach David Price told the media on Thursday that Hansen will not be available this weekend.)
Texas head coach David Pierce confirmed that Kolby Kubichek will start on Sunday, though there are still question marks as to who Houston will send to the mound. In a 4-3 win last Sunday, sophomore right-handed Blake Schultz tossed four scoreless innings, and is in-line to start the series finale, though it is not uncommon for coaching staffs to mix things up early in the season.
Riley’s Prediction: The one thing I feel certain about heading into this series is the fact that neither team will notch a series sweep. As evenly matched as these two squads are, I have a feeling we will see close contests that do end up on the higher end of things scoring-wise. After that, it is hard to predict one team over the other, considering the fact that other than Texas’ three games to start the season, both have played schedules composed of mid-majors and have not faced high-caliber pitching. But if I was forced to make a prediction, I would have to go with Houston pulling out a win in the late innings of game three, thanks to the home field advantage and multiple home runs.