Longhorns chase conference crown on the road

Shane Lewis

In the preseason, Big 12 coaches projected Texas would finish third in the conference, easily outdistanced by stalwarts TCU and Texas Tech.

But as the season winds down, the No. 19 Longhorns (29–15, 11–4 Big 12) find themselves in solid position for an eighth Big 12 title. With three series remaining in the regular season, Texas sits just a game back of conference leader Oklahoma State. The Longhorns will have a chance to prove any doubters wrong, as two of their remaining series are against preseason favorites Texas Tech and TCU.

Texas begins its final pursuit for a conference crown with a road series against West Virginia this weekend.

“We’re at that stage right now,” Texas head coach David Pierce said. “West Virginia is playing really well right now. We’re on the road, we’ve got three series left. Every game is important; every game matters. We’re in a conference race, and it’s fun to be in the middle of it.”

Outside of the conference race, Texas is trying to rack up wins and build up a quality resume. In terms of RPI, the metric the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses to rank teams, the Longhorns currently sit at 30th.

Texas’ loss to 4-1 New Orleans on Sunday was its second-worst loss of the season, according to Rating Percentage Index (RPI) rankings. Pierce has stressed to his players how important metrics like RPI are for postseason success and how there is now more to college baseball than wins and losses.

“We always have a pre-batting practice meeting on Tuesday where we have a ‘state of the union’ (speech),” Pierce said. “This is where we are, this is where the other teams in the conference are. We dropped some points in the RPI, and that’s somewhat avoidable if we won on Sunday. Those are the things that I just try to focus them in on.”

West Virginia is coming into this weekend’s series with Texas red hot at the plate, averaging nearly eight runs over its last five games. After an abysmal 1–6 start to conference play, the Mountaineers have gone 3–2 in their last
five conference games.

Texas will look to shore up its pitching against the surging Mountaineers. After a strong start to the season, the Longhorns have moved back to the middle of the Big 12 pack in team ERA.

The struggles were apparent on Tuesday night against Houston, as Texas was forced to utilize six different pitchers in the outing. Pierce is still looking for more consistency from a pitching staff featuring plenty of new faces.

“I would just like to see us be much cleaner on the mound,” Pierce said. “Just make quality pitches and make the opponents earn it. That’s what we’re searching for with so many new guys.”

The usual weekend starters — juniors Nolan Kingham and Chase Shugart and sophomore Blair Henley — are slated to pitch. Shugart has looked the strongest of the group in recent weeks, allowing only four earned runs over his last three starts.

Despite the pressures of a tightly contested Big 12 race and late-season games with plenty of postseason implications, the Longhorns’ approach for this weekend’s West Virginia series is simple.

“Just do what we do — don’t press and don’t try to do too much,” sophomore catcher DJ Petrinsky said. “Just play baseball how we know how to play it.”