The Big 12 Title Race Will Be Decided in Fort Worth
The best has been saved for last.
In the second to last week of the regular season, perhaps the Big 12’s best series of the year will take place, pitting #7 Texas at #5 TCU.
Not only will we get to see a top 10 matchup featuring two 30-plus win teams, but the result of the series is almost certain to decide the conference’s regular season title, considering TCU and Texas are 1-2 in the Big 12 standings.
The Longhorns and Horned Frogs entered last weekend tied for first place, but Texas Tech’s 2-1 series victory in Austin, and TCU’s sweep of West Virginia caused separation, as TCU moved two games ahead of Texas.
It also caused Texas to slide four spots back from #3, and TCU to jump four spots forward from #9.
With that said, the two opponents will have the same objective this weekend in Fort Worth, though all signs are pointing to them taking very different paths to get there.
Plain and simple, the goal is to finish the weekend atop the conference standings. Texas needs to sweep, TCU simply needs to win two of the three.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this series lies in the variety of bats in both lineups, as each squad has shown a prolific ability to put runs on the board and create offense, even against high-level pitching in Big 12 play.
TCU, led by outfielder Phillip Sikes, ranks second in the league in batting average at .302, and leads the Big 12 in hits (451), RBI (333) and walks (258).
Interestingly, Texas is just behind TCU in most categories, ranking second to the Horned Frogs in walks (254), RBI (298), and third to TCU runs (318).
With several speedsters in both lineups, the two teams are tied for the league lead in doubles at 91.
One of those speedsters is Texas center fielder Mike Antico. The sparkplug of the Longhorns’ lineup, Antico can hit for power, with seven homers this season, but is more valuable to the Texas lineup because of his speed and aggressiveness on the base paths. The St. John’s transfer bats leadoff, and when he reaches base, in roughly 40 percent of his at-bats, he is nearly unstoppable, with a conference-best 24 stolen bases.
In addition to Antico, left fielder Eric Kennedy and second baseman Mitchell Daly have also flashed a tremendous baserunning IQ. The balanced lineup features just as much power as speed, as designated hitter Ivan Melendez has dominated the Big 12 pitching during his first season at the Div. I level, and first baseman Zach Zubia continues to drive the ball past the outfield fence. Melendez is a sure candidate for Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, considering the JUCO transfer enters the weekend hitting .341 with 10 home runs and 41 RBI. He has been kept somewhat quiet as of late, but has a three-game hitting streak intact after a 1-for-3 performance in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Texas State.
TCU’s strength this season has been consistency at the plate, with five hitters batting above .300 in the lineup in Sikes, Hunter Wolfe, Zach Humphreys, and Gray Rodgers. Sikes, in his second season in Fort Worth, is coming off a phenomenal series- a road series at West Virginia- at the plate in which he went 5-for-9 with two of the series’ three triples. He leads the lethal offense in batting average, hits (57) and RBI (50).
But as mentioned above, Sikes is not the only bat of which Texas’ pitchers will need to be weary. Brayden Taylor has surprised many, considering he is a freshman, and is the leading candidate for Big 12 Freshman of the Year based on the numbers he has posted. A West Jordan, Utah native, Taylor leads the Horned Frogs in home runs with 10, and enters the weekend with a 13-game hitting streak.
Texas’ pitching staff took a hit last weekend when it was outdueled by Texas Tech’s powerful offense, allowing 14 runs. Yet, the Longhorns remain the conference’s best pitching team, as the lone Big 12 staff with a sub-3.00 ERA (2.93). Much of that success on the hill lies in the performance of the starters; Ty Madden, Tristan Stevens and Pete Hansen.
As much as the first two games will play into the result of the series, Sunday is the contest to keep an eye on, as Hansen will get his first weekend start of the season against TCU’s Johnny Ray.
Hansen relieved starter Kolby Kubichek in the first inning with the bases loaded and none out against Texas Tech last Sunday, an 11-3 victory, displaying his phenomenal slider through 7.2 innings of work. Following the contest, Texas head coach David Pierce told the media that Hansen would be in line to start this Sunday, a bold move considering the magnitude of this series. While Hansen is a sure question mark, he appears to have gotten back to the level he was at pre-pandemic last spring, with high velocity and the stamina to pitch late into games.
Ray, 3-2 this season with a 4.93 ERA, is also in need of a bounce-back performance, as he allowed just one run, but five hits and two walks in 5.1 innings in Sunday’s 9-1 win over West Virginia, failing to earn the decision.
One arm we will see at least once, if not twice, from the TCU bullpen is southpaw River Ridings, a freshman who has made 16 appearances this season. He has a high strikeout per nine innings ratio, at 10.9 with 28 strikeouts in 23.1 innings of work, but has also allowed 14 hits and 10 walks. Despite putting runners on base, Ridings has the lowest ERA on the team, at 0.39, having allowed just one of those 24 base runners to score.
If TCU’s offense challenges Texas in the way it has other Big 12 opponents this season, the Longhorns will make several calls to the bullpen as well, with Cole Quintanilla the first name Pierce summons in relief. Quintanilla, a right-hander, is 4-0 on the year, throwing with remarkable accuracy and striking out 25 in 24.2 innings.
Also pay attention to Saturday’s matchup between TCU’s Austin Krob (6-0) and Texas’ Tristan Stevens (7-2). Both pound the strike zone, and induce several swings and misses with their variety of pitches and ability to mix speeds. Game two is also critical in a balanced series such as this one, considering one team will be going for the series win on Saturday, while the other will do everything it can to tie the series at one game apiece.
Prediction: TCU enters as the favorite, but these two teams look as evenly-matched as they could be. It has been a series we have been waiting for all season, and I am confident the Horns and Horned Frogs will live up to expectations. Playing in Fort Worth is not easy, but Texas is 11-4 on the road this season, so I do not know how much that will factor into the result. Texas is frustrated after last weekend, and has the pitching to hold TCU’s bats below the Horned Frogs average. I like what Hansen brings to the rotation, so I will take Texas winning the series two games to one on Sunday, but finishing one game behind TCU in the Big 12 standings.