|Summer is here, meaning the clock has started on football season. I got my first football magazine over the weekend. The first of many.
You see, I have a problem. I have a football magazine problem. I can’t help myself. When I see one, I have to buy it. Even if I didn’t want to, I would have to buy it. So far I have never not wanted to. I am like a moth to a flame, only the flame is like $9.99 and up. It doesn’t matter where I am, either: at the mall, at Target, at the drug store, out of town, buying a card for a birthday, getting gas or buying kolaches on a Sunday morning (that actually happened). I will buy three or four each summer, at least, but the pinnacle for me is Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. It is a Texas tradition and the benchmark of football analysis in the state, from high school to the NFL and every college in Texas and the Big 12. It is the football magazine bible for me. I usually buy two of them because I end up marking one up with my notes and getting it wet at the pool, the beach, spill something on it on an airplane, etc. The other is for the vault. Yes, there is a vault of football magazines. Like I said, I have a problem. The acquisition and maintenance of the magazines is not really the issue, it’s the content.
The DCTF does not fall into this category, but every other one does. Here is how this goes: I see a football magazine, freak out because it is out for the fall, buy it, rush home to read it, and then the following happens every single time:
That’s the drill. Every. Single. Time. I don’t know why I buy them, because you can clearly see I whine about what I read more than praise it. Still, I will do it again. And again. And again. Because I have a problem. I am about to head out and find more and start this all over again.
It’s all about baseball this week. Let’s get to it.
The playoffs are here. This is the time that the non-hardcores start paying attention to college baseball as the national media starts televising the games. The second season starts on Thursday. The Horns are the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, behind top seed Arizona State, and host Rice, Louisiana-Lafayette and Rider in the Austin Regional this weekend at Disch-Faulk Field.
Texas got that No.2 seed based on the phenomenal regular season record, winning the Big 12 conference going away, sweeping six of the nine conference series and winning the other three for a Big 12 record 24-3 conference record. It is the sixth time Texas has been a top 8 national seed in the 12 years the NCAA has awarded top 8 national seeds.
Texas did not get that No.2 seed based on anything from the Big 12 Tournament…
Big 12 Tournament
… Because they stunk up the joint. The Horns lost three conference games in three months during the regular season and then went out and lost three conference games in four days over the weekend at the Big 12 Baseball Tournament in Oklahoma City.
Everything I said last week about why Texas would win their third straight Big 12 Tournament Title- great defense, timely hitting, terrific pitching, sound fundamentals- was wrong. Texas did not have great defense, they did not have timely hitting, they did not have terrific pitching and they certainly did not have sound fundamentals in the first three-game losing streak of the entire season. What happened?
I could go into detail about failed sacrifice bunt attempts (at least three), defensive errors, lack of pop at the plate, the injury to Brandon Loy that kept him out of the Tourney, the inconsistent pitching, and more. But I am not. The reason Texas went 3 and barbecue was simple- it wasn’t important to them.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Texas went to OKC looking to lose or anything like that and I am sure they are having some serious talks about being prepared and focused at all times, but it sure looked to me like Missouri, A&M and Tech were much more excited and intense about the conference tourney than the Horns were. Tech and Mizzou had to win the whole thing to get into the NCAA Tournament. There was no other way for them to get to the post-season. There was a good chance A&M had to win, or least get to the Championship Game, to get in the Tournament. Texas didn’t and it showed.
In short, they turned it off. That is a dangerous game to play because it is much easier to turn it off than to turn it on. Can they get their groove back for the NCAA Tournament? Can they rebound and play at a high level and get back to Omaha? Absolutely, and here’s why.
First of all, Brandon Loy will be back in the lineup. He started every regular season game and his defense and leadership on the infield were sorely missed in Oklahoma City. His absence forced players to move around and messed with the chemistry of the lineup, and you know chemistry is one of the biggest factors with me. Secondly, they care. This isn’t for a conference tournament trophy, this is for the trophy. While last week would have been nice, it was meaningless to a team that won the regular season Big 12 Championship and had little to play for. With those losses, now many are questioning whether Texas is actually as good as advertised. Did they just get hot? Is the rest of the Big 12 not very good? They don’t look so tough. The Horns have something to prove now, which wasn’t the case a week ago. The Regional itself will ensure Texas is in the here and the now (more on that later). Lastly, Texas hadn’t faced any hiccups in three months, going 27-1 down the stretch. Their performance in the Big 12 Tournament will give the staff plenty of opportunities to remind the team you can’t just roll your logo on the field and expect it to win games. Nothing will be assumed or taken for granted from this point forward.
As previously mentioned, Texas gets Rice, Louisiana-Lafayette and Rider in the Austin Regional. On paper this should be a runaway Texas win, but they don’t play this on paper, do they? Texas was the runaway favorite last weekend, too. How does everyone match up?
The Horns will get Rider first, playing Friday night at 6:30. The Rider Broncs won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the MAAC, for the second time in the last three years to get into the post-season. Mike Thomas, a junior, is the best pitcher at 9-2 with a 3.59 ERA. The lefty was the MAAC Pitcher of the Year as well as the New Jersey Pitcher of the Year, whatever that is. He has 94 strikeouts in 97.2 innings pitched and will likely get the start against the Horns on Friday night. If it isn’t him it will be Patrick Devlin, a sophomore who went 7-3 on the season. If the opportunity arises they bring in New Jersey Rookie Pitcher of the Year Tyler Smith, the freshman closer that set a school record with 30 appearances this year and finished with a 2.77 ERA. At the plate they are lead by All-MAAC Nick Wojnowski, who leads the team with a .396 batting average and has nine home runs and .627 slugging percentage. The outfielder has power but a good eye as well, being only one walk shy of a school record for most in a season. He is usually set up by MAAC MVP Tournament MVP AJ Albee. The second baseman set single season records in 2010 for runs scored (62), RBI’s (60) and has 83 hits on the season, only five shy of the single season school record.
They aren’t a powerhouse, but they are conference champions and are not going to be intimidated. Probably. I doubt they have played anywhere as big as the Disch. Who is their most famous alum? You could say Jeff Kunkel, the baseball player who played for the Texas Rangers forever, but it isn’t. It’s Digger Phelps.
Louisiana-Lafayette comes in as the No.3 seed in the Regional and got an at-large bid based on a wicked second half run. The Ragin’ Cajuns were 4-8 and in ninth place before going 17-1 to finish the regular season and win the Sun Belt Conference Title. It is their first appearance since 2007 and they will come into Austin unimpressed with the big names they will face. This is a fast team that can get around the bases as they have four players in double digit steals, led by Alex Fuselier with 20 and Kyle Olasin with 19. They also have five players with a .800 or greater stolen base percentage. Olasin has been caught only four times and Fuselier only once this season. They get on with walks (26 for Fuselier and 21 for Olasin) , hit by pitch (19 for Matt Goula, 11 for Olasin) or base hits to set the table for the big dogs Jordan Poirrier and Chad Keefer. Keefer leads the team with 15 homers and Poirrier has 12 as well as a team-high 30 walks on the season. Zach Osborne is their best pitcher, going 8-4 on the year with a 2.56 ERA. He struck out 108 and walked only 19 with at least one coming intentionally. With 25 hit batters on the season he will hit a batter now and then, and then again. Look for him to start against Rice and TJ Geith to get the start in game two. Geith has six wins on the season and a 4.79 ERA in 82.2 innings pitched. Lafayette doesn’t have much depth outside of the starting two and there is a pretty big drop off from Osborne to Geith, but they are going to advance by getting on base and running. This is a pretty hot team coming into the tourney that will force the opponent to execute defensively to beat them.
And then there is Rice. I love me some Rice football and David Bailiff, but this isn’t their football team. The Owls are the No.2 seed and I have the same opinion of the Rice baseball team that I do of Nebraska and ou. That means I don’t like them. Rice and Texas have a nice rivalry in baseball and have for some years. Texas beat Rice twice in three meetings this season and the Owls knocked off Texas in the NCAA Tournament two years ago, but it goes back much farther than that. They always play in the regular season, but it really heated up in 2002. The teams met in the 2002 College World Series and Texas knocked off Rice on the way to the National Title. Rice responded by ousting Texas from the CWS in 2003 on the way to their National Title, and the players made sure to let Texas know they were out with their ridiculous act in the post-game. Tee shirts were made; silly owl hand signs were done and down horns were thrown. Now they can meet again in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Rice knows this Texas team as well as anyone in the Big 12 and they will not be intimidated by the crowd or the moment. They will bring their own fans and they will come to play. They come in with a 35-20 record and have the familiarity and that will make them formidable. Their pitching staff has a 4.60 ERA and they walk nearly four per game while only striking out six per game. The defense has a decent-but-not-elite .972 fielding percentage. At the plate they have a team batting average of .321 and are 21st nationally in runs scored per game at 8.7. They have 77 home runs on the season and .512 slugging percentage. With less than one stolen base per game, the Owls don’t run, but they are ninth in walks and 16th in sacrifice flies. What does all of this tell us? It tells us they don’t play great defense and their staff will give up some runs. It tells us that they mash offensively by getting guys on base via base hit or walk and depend on the hammers in the lineup to drive them. And Anthony Rendon is a hammer. He has 23 homers on the season, but they also have three others with double digit homers. In short, they will be an exciting team to watch because they will score some runs but odds are high they will give some up, too.
There is talent and experience in this Regional facing the Horns, as well as familiarity and emotion with the Rice Owls. Can Texas get through this Regional? Sure they can. They lead the nation in team ERA at 2.39, are second nationally in fielding percentage at .980 and allow the fewest hits per game in the nation at 7.03. The talent should get Texas by Rider but the bats must come alive this weekend for Texas to get by a potential Rice game, because odds are high they will score some runs. The Rice staff will give them that opportunity. If they take advantage of those opportunities they will be on to the next round.
So Texas tanking in the Big 12 Tournament didn’t cost them too much in the long run, but there is some fallout. First of all, does Rice come to Austin if Texas shows up in Oklahoma City? Does anyone else hosting a Regional have to play someone they play three or four times each year? TCU in round two is also going to be tough because they are a solid, deep team that could make it to Omaha and will bring everyone from Fort Worth to town should they both get to the Super Regional. Is that match-up there if Texas plays better in the Big 12 Tourney? Maybe if Texas wins the Big 12 Tournament nothing changes at all, but the effort last weekend leaves room for questions.
I said earlier that Texas would be focused with something to prove and in that sense the selection committee might have done them a favor. While Rice is a tough opponent because of the familiarity, it goes both ways. Texas knows these guys as well. The juniors on this team remember getting knocked out of the Tournament in Houston by Rice in 2008. They seemed indifferent last weekend, but with the real Tournament starting AND the Rice Owls being the likely opponent and obstacle in the way, you can be sure the Longhorns will be tuned in and ready to go.
I’m ready to go. See you Friday at the Disch.
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