The Frogs and Longhorns face off this weekend in a series that has massive implications for both teams, albeit for very different reasons. These two programs have seemingly trended in different directions this season, as TCU took a precipitous drop after four years as the reigning best team in Texas, while the Horns seem to be ahead of schedule in David Pierce’s second season in Austin.
As TCU fights for their postseason life, Texas is looking to lock up their first regular season Big 12 Championship since 2011, and with that, a chance to host a regional in Austin - something that hasn’t been done in several seasons as well. UT is currently two games behind Oklahoma State and one in front of Oklahoma, and with Okie State facing Texas Tech, there is a prime opportunity to for UT to get in the title mix. Meanwhile, OU has lowly Kansas, so they could make a move as well.
To get the skinny on the Horns, we went to Joe Cook of Inside Texas, who has been following the program closely.
Thursday: Nick Lodolo (6-3, 4.48) vs Nolan Kingham (6-2, 4.50)
Friday: Jake Eissler (5-1, 3.60) vs Chase Shugart (4-3, 5.17)
Saturday: Haylen Green (2-1, 3.19) OR Sean Wymer (5-3, 4.04 ERA) vs Blair Henley (5-6, 3.60)
Texas (Joe Cook):
Considered before the season to be the strength of the team, starting pitching has been a roller coaster ride for most of 2018. Junior Nolan Kingham entered the season as a Golden Spikes candidate and possible first day of the draft prospect, but despite the solid 6-2 mark his pitching has not lived up to that expectation. As a starter, he has a tendency to get behind early in innings, leaving his sinker up for batters to hit. It’s very much two sides of a coin with him; a good start in the first inning usually portends well for the junior from Las Vegas. A bad first inning, which often has been erased by the strong Longhorn lineup, and the bullpen might be called upon early.
Shugart transitioned from back-of-the-bullpen arm to Saturday starter over the offseason. There have been signs of promise, but the third time through the lineup causes problems for the Bridge City junior. Earlier in the season, head coach David Pierce and pitching coach/volunteer assistant Phil Haig let Shugart and catcher DJ Petrinsky call their own game. It turned out to be one of his best starts of the year. Shugart is an aggressive pitcher and baseball player in general. If he gets in a zone, he’ll let the opponents know.
Henley, like the other two starters, is coming off of double-digit day rest after being off this past weekend. His start in the rubber game of the Texas Tech series helped propel Texas to a series win in Lubbock, the first time that’s happened all year. Henley is at his best when he throws any pitch in any count, but he has been prone to let one or two mistake pitches ruin an entire outing.
TCU (Melissa Triebwasser):
The Frogs have been known for their pitching throughout their recent run of success, as well-known names like Brian Howard, Alex Young, and Preston Morrison carried TCU to great heights. The Frogs looked stacked heading into 2018, as ace JAred Janczak returned, bolstered by first round draft pick Nick Lodolo returning for his sophomore season, and Sean Wymer making the transition from talented long reliever to back end of the rotation. But Lodolo and Wymer scuffled early and Janczak’s season was cut short, putting the Frogs’ usual strength as one of it’s biggest question marks.
But something happened on the way out of the postseason discussion, as Jim Schlossnagle discovered a couple of special sophomores during the Texas Tech series. Starting in the series clinching game three victory, TCU starting pitchers went six consecutive games without allowing a run, as righty Jake Eissler and lefty Haylen Green made the jump from middle relief to starters with a flourish, both coming close to throwing no-hitters. Wymer has bounced between the pen and weeknight starter, and it’s unclear which role he will fill over the weekend in Austin. If it stays the same as it has been over the last two series, it will be Lodolo-Eissler-Green, and they have been very effective as a threesome down the stretch. The bullpen has been solid, even without Durbin Feltman, as Cal Coughlin and Wymer have maintained their excellence, and true freshmen Augie Mihlbauer and Caleb Sloan have looked like future stars. Charles King is one to watch - after shutting down Florida in the CWS last season, he has been up and down in 2018. But used in short stints against WVU last weekend, he looked like his old self, and can be a great holder for Schloss and Saarloos.
There’s only one option here: Kody Clemens. The junior made 2018 his season, posting All-American numbers after a mediocre season in 2017. His .345 average is eighth in the Big 12, his 16 home runs is second in the conference, and he’s slugging an impressive .680. His success this year is a lot of his own work, but he does have redshirt freshman DH Zach Zubia, a strong hitter in his own right, protecting him. That combo has been Texas’ best this season as well as one of the best in the Big 12.
The one consistent thing for the TCU offense in 2018 has been Josh Watson, who came out on a tear and has settled into being a really reliable hitter in the middle of the lineup. Watson slugged 11 home runs as a freshman before being handcuffed during a sophomore slump, but has bounced back as a junior by batting .320 to lead the team, collecting 30 RBI, and hitting eight doubles and eight home runs. He also leads the squad with 36 walks drawn, including a four spot in game three over the weekend. It’s definitely been offense by committee in 2018, but Watson and fifth year senior Michael Landestoy are the two guys you want at the plate in a big spot. Landestoy has had a knack for getting the big hit in the big spots, as he proved Tuesday night in the ninth inning of the matchup against SFA, singling in a pair of runs in a tie game that ensured a TCU victory. AJ Balta, who we were concerned might miss a few games after slamming into the outfield fence against WVU Sunday, has also been on a tear, and never seems to get rattled by the moment.
Things to Watch:
- The scoreboard – Texas is currently chasing Oklahoma State for the Big 12 regular season championship, something that has eluded the Longhorns since 2011. After a difficult early season slate that included series losses against LSU, Stanford, and two games against Arkansas, the Longhorns have rebounded well and played resilient baseball in order to position themselves two games back of the Cowboys. Oklahoma State hosts Texas Tech this weekend, and Texas needs some help from the Red Raiders. If the Longhorns make up those two games, Texas holds the tiebreaker with the Cowboys. That might just be getting a little too ahead for David Pierce’s taste because…
- The Tournament – Both teams have a lot to play for Thursday through Saturday. For Texas, a series win and a decent showing in the conference tournament likely locks up a top 16 spot and a regional host, the other going to the conference champion. The Big 12 looks like a two host league, and one of Texas, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech is going to get left out after this weekend. On the purple side, TCU is playing for its tournament life. Reaching the 30 win mark would greatly improve TCU’s chances at making the tournament, but without some of their key contributors that’s tough. Still, TCU has had the Longhorns’ number pretty much across the athletic board the past few years. With both teams having a lot to play for, it should make for a great series.
- The bullpen – Thought to be the glaring weakness of Texas heading into this year, three junior arms have become the go-to pieces for Pierce: Parker Joe Robinson, Andy McGuire, and Josh Sawyer. Sawyer is basically the only left-handed option the Longhorns have, and has served his role decently well this season. McGuire out of high school was one of the best all-around players in the nation. After a sabbatical from baseball, McGuire returned to the Longhorns and has turned himself into the late inning guy. Robinson is the most reliable arm out of the bullpen. After almost being taken off scholarship by Pierce, a change in arm slot has allowed him to force opposing hitters into groundout after groundout. He had two huge performances in Lubbock that were pivotal in Texas series win. If the game is close, he will likely see the mound.
At this point in the season, it’s hard to look at anything other than injuries as the pinnacle that can make or break TCU’s season heading to the conference tournament. Within two days, the Frogs’ lost their best hitter (Luken Baker) and their best pitcher (Jared Janczak). That was followed by the sudden disappearance of Durbin Feltman - quite possibly the best closer in the country - who has missed three weeks with blister issues on his pitching hand. And then, Sunday, TCU lost their most important glue guy and one of their hottest bats when AJ Balta crashed into the outfield fence and came up gimpy though he returned Tuesday night not looking much worse for the wear.
Injuries are part of the game, certainly, but the Frogs got dealt two more big blows right as they were starting to figure out how to play together. The only returning starter from 2017 is now Josh Watson in left - though Zach Humphreys and Connor Wanhanen were lineup regulars last season. It has made for a tough go in 2018, but the future is certainly bright.
But, TCU fans are spoiled, and not too interested in the future. For a program coming off four straight CWS berths, being on the outside looking in of the postseason field in mid-May is unfamiliar and unsettling. TCU has won their last two Big 12 series, and probably needs to take two out of three in Austin to have any shot of getting a spot in a regional (outside of winning the Big 12 Tournament). The Frogs are 4-5 wins away from an invitation, but can ill-afford a poor showing against the Longhorns if they want a shot at an at-large bid. We can certainly expect an entertaining Big 12 Tournament, with six teams capable of winning it, and the Frogs the most desperate of the bunch.