HOUSTON—When Texas coach Augie Garrido turned to address the media Friday night, a reporter jokingly told him the Longhorns are an offensive juggernaut.
"You bet your sweet ass," Garrido responded without missing a beat.
A little levity was in order after the Longhorns scored 11 runs on 13 hits against a very talented Rice pitching staff, en route to an ugly 11-8 win. Texas had scored just 21 runs total in its previous eight games, scuffling to a 4-4 start.
Garrido said even before his team got annihilated in a three-game sweep at Stanford that his hitters had been out of sync, out of rhythm and out of character. Garrido's message never changed: His hitters needed to stop trying so hard ("They say there's no crying in baseball; well, there's no trying in baseball, or else you'll fail," he said two weeks ago) and focus more on the process than the results.
Assistant Tommy Harmon and volunteer assistant Ryan Russ spent the week leading up to the Houston College Classic trying to rebuild the hitters' confidence and instill a better offensive plan.
"A lot of it was about timing, because you have to get your foot down in time to be able to see the ball clearly," Garrido said. "And that's one of the hardest things for young hitters to do, getting their foot down on time. And they spent a lot of time with them on the mental game—relaxation, going from pitch to pitch and focusing on the ball instead of trying to get results. It's a heck of a lot harder when you've been losing than it is when you've been winning."
Texas showed vastly improved pitch recognition and discipline Friday, knocking out Rice ace Austin Kubitza with two runs in the second inning thanks largely to five walks. But the Longhorns also hit some balls very hard, particularly in a six-run fifth inning, repeatedly squaring up power-armed Rice reliever John Simms. Jonathan Walsh produced two of UT's hardest-hit balls of the night, a double off the left-field wall in the third and an RBI double into the left-field corner in the fifth.
"We have it in us, we know we can hit," Walsh said. "Today we were just relaxed, and we squared the ball up and hit the ball hard today."
For Rice, the performances of super sophomores Kubitza and Simms were particularly disconcerting. Kubitza struggled to find the strike zone for the second straight week, missing arm-side and high over and over again with a fastball that sat just 87-88 mph, down considerably from his usual peak velocity in the 91-94 range.
"I told him, 'You're throwing at the target, not through the target,' " Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "Whether that will work or not, that's the way I feel about it, that's how it looks to me. He was just trying to place the ball instead of driving the ball through the target. He didn't have any velocity either. That's proof enough that you're not driving through the target."
Simms' velocity was also down from his usual low 90s, sitting just 88 mph and topping out at 89. But the bigger problem was the ineffectiveness of his 75-77 split-finger.
"He had been doing well with his spit-finger, and instead of going to the curveball, he went to the split-finger again tonight, and they were all up (in the zone)," Graham said. "A split-finger up is a very bad pitch. It's just a bad fastball is what it is. It's just waste-high, and there were several of them. That's the main thing tonight. I didn't see hardly any curveballs. The time before he pitched, he was devastating with the split-finger. I have no objection to him throwing the split-finger, but he threw it badly tonight."
The Owls rallied in the late innings against a Texas pitching staff that also looked underwhelming, but Parker French minimized the damage from Rice rallies in the final three innings to earn the save. Texas was warming up its next two projected starters—Hoby Milner and Ricky Jacquez—in case they were needed, a testament to the importance of Friday's game.
"You have to win this game," Garrido said. "You know how hard it would have been to pick these guys up tomorrow? Really rough. You have to win this game when you've been going the way we have been.
"Both pitching staffs struggled, and it was whoever settled down and got the outs the most. It was really a big-time battle, man."
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