Column: Young arms primed to step up in 2016

Michael Shapiro

Texas left the field dejected after a shellacking at the hands of Dallas Baptist on May 31, 2015. The 8-1 loss in the NCAA Regional ended a Longhorn season mired in disappointment.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the loss was the Patriots destruction of the Longhorns’ pitching staff. Dallas Baptist hung eight runs on the board against Texas, jumping out to a 7-0 lead before yielding a run. In the biggest game of the year, then-junior pitcher Ty Culbreth allowed four earned runs in three innings. Then-freshman pitcher Connor Mayes then surrendered three more.

The loss could have permeated throughout the Texas locker room as it prepares to begin the season on Feb. 19. Instead, the events of May 31 are now ancient history to the Longhorns.

“Last year ended in a disappointing fashion,” junior pitcher Kasey Clemens said. “But we feel good about where we are as a team. We had a really good fall and I think we’re excited to get out there.”

The Longhorns will have a significant hole to fill on the mound after losing Parker French, last year’s No. 1 starter, to graduation. French was the anchor of the Longhorns’ staff in 2015, leading the team in wins, strikeouts and innings. In his place is a series of unproven commodities, and no notable ace. However, the lack of experience isn’t concerning to those on the Texas roster.

“I feel good about who we’ll have on the mound,” sophomore catcher Michael Cantu said. “We have a lot of guys here who can really contribute.”

Assistant head coach Skip Johnson echoed Cantu’s sentiments. While Texas loses its prime pitching asset in French, the Longhorns feature significantly more depth. Johnson said multiple pitchers will in competition for the start on opening night. 

“As we go through the next few weeks we have guys penciled down, but nothing is set,” Johnson said. “We’re just happy we have a lot of good arms, guys who can out there and throw and compete every day.”

One asset the Longhorns will have in 2016 is the return of redshirt sophomore Morgan Cooper, who missed the 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Cooper impressed as a freshman in 2014, posting a 2.89 ERA en route to being selected to the Big 12 All-Freshman team.

Texas’ pitching staff is a group filled with question marks. They won’t have French or an established ace on the staff to begin the season, and no current Longhorn won more than four games in 2015.

But the Longhorns’ pitching staff isn’t focused on its inexperience as it prepares to face UNLV on Feb. 19. The Longhorns claim they have the talent on the mound to compete for the Big 12 title, and feel confident regardless of who is taking the ball on opening day.

“These guys are a talented group,” Johnson said. “I’m confident in them, and they’ve shown that they can all be quality starters for us.”