Some might call the Longhorns’ run to win the Big 12 tournament a weekend ago magical, but, at best, the word to describe their performance at the Dallas Regional on Friday and Sunday is disappointing.
That has become the expectation for playing baseball at Texas, where any season that doesn’t end with a championship is considered a disappointment.
“Augie told me when I came for my visit that playing here is like playing for the Yankees,” said Tres Barrera, sophomore first baseman and catcher.
Disappointment stretches back to last season’s conclusion.
Texas entered this season with high expectations. It had just come off of a run to the College World Series and lost few players. The Longhorns returned the majority of the key players and added top freshmen, such as Michael Cantu and Bret Boswell.
Head coach Augie Garrido even mentioned before the season that this was the first time in a while that he had a Division I-type player at every position.
“It encourage and it nurtured those expectations,” Garrido said.
Texas lived up to those expectations when the season started. It opened with a series split at Rice, then opened at home with a 14–2 win against UTSA and outscored Minnesota 31–2 in a four-game sweep.
But then cracks became visible in Texas’ game. The Longhorns were swept in a shortened series against San Diego, managed a split at Stanford and lost to UT-Arlington, a game in which they had a three-run lead going to the bottom of the ninth.
“You see rankings — we were top 10 the first couple of weeks — and once one thing goes wrong … you start trying too hard,” Barrera said.
Then the floodgates opened.
After starting the Big 12 schedule 5–1, the Longhorns went into a tailspin. From March 27 to May 5, Texas won only one series — against Kansas, which was the lone team to miss the Big 12 tournament — while being swept in three series and winning just five games.
During that stretch, Texas was held to one or fewer runs seven times. Garrido said they “got locked into batting average” and tried to fix what was wrong when things began to go downhill.
“I kept saying you can’t fix what’s not broken,” Garrido said. “The ballplayer inside of you is the one that has to play the game.”
But then Texas got a much-needed break from play. Between the Texas Tech and Baylor series, the Longhorns got a 13-day reprieve from baseball. Instead of practicing and running drills to make things better, Garrido and the coaching staff took a more mental approach, showing highlights of the good times to get the team thinking positive.
The tactic had immediate success. Texas took a series victory at Baylor, including a four home run weekend for a slumping C.J Hinojosa, and wrapped up the fifth seed for the Big 12 tournament.
In Tulsa, the Longhorns were the recipients of big breaks and great pitching. Senior Parker French, junior Ty Culbreth and freshman Connor Mayes each pitched complete games after having pitched none all season.
In the title game against Oklahoma State, the Longhorns benefitted from three errors by the Cowboys and picked up a key squeeze bunt by Barrera and a two RBI single by sophomore center fielder Zane Gurwitz to win the game 6–3 and earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“We only had one opportunity to get into the tournament, and we got the job done,” Barrera said.
But the momentum by the Cinderella run in the Big 12 tournament failed to carry over to the Dallas regional. In the first game Friday, Texas battled back from a four-run deficit against Oregon State, capped off by senior second baseman Brooks Marlow's two-run home run in the eighth. But the Beavers responded with a run of their own in the bottom of the inning and took the win.
And in the elimination game, pushed to Sunday because of poor field conditions, the Longhorns were simply overmatched by regional host Dallas Baptist. Patriots right hander Cory Taylor held Texas to three hits and struck out nine batters, sending the Longhorns home with a 8–1 loss.
“It’s always bitter when you don’t win the last game of the season,” Barrera said.
Now comes a tough offseason. Key seniors Collin Shaw, Parker French and Brooks Marlow have played their final game at Texas, and left fielder Ben Johnson and Hinojosa might forgo their senior seasons to play professionally. And questions about Garrido’s future still linger for the time being.
But there’s also a lot of positives coming out of this season. The pitching staff for next year appears loaded with Culbreth, freshman Connor Mayes and last year’s All-American Morgan Cooper leading the way. And freshmen Bret Boswell, Joe Baker and Michael Cantu showed signs of being key parts to the offense going forward.
That and this experience of losing has lit a fire underneath the guys returning for next year.
“I had several of the players come up to me and told me this will not happen next year,” Garrido said.
Whether that happens will only be known a year from now. In the meantime, this season, even with all of the success, will be looked at one way: a disappointment.