Pitching Staff Is Why Texas Is Ranked No. 1
The old slogan— "Everything's bigger in Texas"—might be a bit of an exaggeration. After all, at least one thing was decidedly smaller in Texas in 2009: the Longhorns' ERA. In fact, 286 Division I teams posted bigger ERAs than Texas' 2.95 last year, and only one (Arizona State) had a smaller ERA.
So that axiom has been disproved. Not everything
is bigger in Texas.
But expectations—now those
are unquestionably bigger in Texas. Just ask Longhorns coach Augie Garrido. As Texas prepared to face Louisiana State in the College World Series Finals last June, Garrido made it clear what was at stake.
"Unfortunately in Texas, second place just doesn't get it, so finishing second will just be another disaster in a long line of disasters," Garrido said in the pre-Finals press conference.
"It's always true for the University of Texas," junior righthander Chance Ruffin says now. "It's never really good enough just to make the postseason or make the final tournament. You've got to bring home the gold or it's nothing at all."
And the Longhorns very nearly did bring home the gold last year. After dropping the Finals opener, they stormed back with a 5-1 win in Game Two behind a masterful complete-game five-hitter from freshman ace Taylor Jungmann. And in the decisive third game, the 'Horns came all the way back from an early four-run deficit to tie the score at 4-4 in the fifth inning—only to see LSU rip their hearts out with five runs in the sixth, en route to an 11-4 victory.
"That's one of the worst feelings—if not the worst feeling—I've ever had, and I can speak for just about everybody else on the team last year," says junior catcher Cameron Rupp. "You're so close to one of your big goals for the whole year.
"We're determined as much as anybody to get back to Omaha like we were last year. This year, we're kind of doing the deal where there's penalty running after our intrasquad if you lose, and they make the penalty running so bad that you do whatever it takes to win. We're basically making it so that losing is not an option. We don't want to lose ever again after what we went through last year."
Garrido has been around college baseball for more than five decades now, and he has seen how falling just short of an ultimate goal can drive a team the following year. It drove Texas all the way to the CWS crown in 2005 after the 'Horns finished as national runners-up the previous year.
"I think sometimes when you finish second in something as important as the College World Series or anything else that has that kind of significance attached to it, it does make you a better person, because it really hurts, and the players feel it," Garrido says. "It's really a devastating feeling at the time. They don't forget that, because in that moment it's a crisis they don't want to feel again, and they want to set it straight."
It is remarkable—and revealing about just how disappointing it is to fall one game short of a national title—that the Longhorns are left with such a bitter taste from the end of 2009, given their exhilarating postseason run. Some highlights from that thrill ride:
• An epic 25-inning win against Boston College in regionals, followed less than 12 hours later by a comeback from a four-run, ninth-inning deficit against Army, punctuated by a regional-winning walk-off grand slam.
• A come-from-behind victory against Southern Mississippi in the CWS opener, capped by a walk-off walk.
• A comeback from a 6-0 deficit against first-team All-American Mike Leake to beat Arizona State 10-6 two days later.
• Another comeback against ASU three days after that—this time in the ninth inning. Rupp hit a game-tying homer in the ninth, and Conner Rowe followed with a walk-off homer two batters later to send Texas to the Finals.
"It was like magic," Rupp says of the Longhorns' postseason run. "Everything was just so unpredictable. We never gave up. That's one thing Coach always gets on us about: You can't quit. He always says, 'When we have two outs, we still have a third of our life left.' "
Rupp's words reveal three of the major reasons the Longhorns are No. 1 in Baseball America's preseason Top 25 for a record sixth time in the 30-year history of the rankings: they are resilient, they are battle-tested, and they have Garrido.
College baseball's all-time leader in coaching victories has an uncanny knack for knowing what buttons to push at what times—witness his between-innings team meeting after Texas fell behind Leake 6-0 through three innings, which was followed immediately by a six-run rally in the top of the fourth.
Garrido is also a master of reducing the fundamentals of the game to their simplest form. Maybe the Longhorns don't put up the gaudiest offensive numbers—cavernous UFCU Disch-Falk Field has a lot to do with that—but they execute a style of play that is immune to the whims of Mother Nature or the effects of the dimensions of any particular ballpark to which they travel.
"I would much rather have the defensive part of it in place and find a way to score the runs than the opposite," Garrido says. "(Offensively), you've got to have a lot of different ways to succeed and make adjustments. That's why we've liked taking the basic fundamentals of offense and simplifying them—being able to bunt, make productive outs, play fundamentally sound baseball for college, and let the home runs take care of themselves where they can."
Of course, Texas has the personnel to execute that scheme to perfection. The 'Horns have strong defenders all over the diamond, and especially up the middle in shortstop Brandon Loy, center fielder Rowe and Rupp, whose catching and throwing "has improved dramatically" under assistant coach Tommy Harmon's tutelage, according to Garrido. And the lineup is filled with smart players who know how to bunt and hit situationally.
But there is no bigger reason for the Longhorns' success—and their No. 1 ranking—than their loaded pitching staff, masterfully overseen by pitching coach Skip Johnson. Texas will miss lefthander Austin Wood, whose 13 shutout innings in that 25-inning game against BC last year will go down as one of the great individual performances of the modern era. But Texas will be able to fill his shoes. Like Wood a year earlier, Ruffin volunteered to give up his job in the weekend rotation and move into the closer role for the good of the team.
"I have a lot of experience under pressure, and I really thrive on the energy of the fans and the energy and closeness of the game," Ruffin says. "Also my arm bounces back well, so I don't need a lot of recovery time."
Jungmann is likely to assume the Friday starter job full-time, with junior righties Cole Green and Brandon Workman following him in a potentially dominant weekend rotation. Sophomore righty Austin Dicharry—a fifth pitcher who would be the ace of most other staffs in the nation—gives Texas a top-flight option for midweek starts or can serve as a bridge to Ruffin on weekends.
"It feels like I'm catching what could be a Friday night starter for any university every day," Rupp says. "With Workman, Jungmann, Cole Green—those guys are all in the low-to-mid-90s range, and Workman and Jungmann have been up in the 96-97 range in the fall. It's a treat for me to sit back there and watch it happen up close and personal. Knowing them and the way they work, it's going to be a treat for everybody to watch this year."
Garrido is just as excited to sit back and watch as anybody else.
"I think that it's the deepest of probably any staff I've had," he says. "I think we can go eight deep and you're still within the framework of above-average potential. I don't know about all the pitching staffs here—we all know about the group with Roger Clemens and Calvin Schiraldi in the '80s, and I think it's similar to that, I really do."
This group of Longhorns hopes the similarities to Clemens' and Schiraldi's 1983 Texas team don't stop with pitching talent. That team was one of four teams ever to open the season atop the BA rankings and end the season by celebrating a national championship. The 2010 Longhorns want to be the fifth.
"We know the expectations here, and we know that when you play at any athletic program here at Texas, second place isn't good enough," Rupp says. "Bringing home a national title is what you're expected to do."
|A quintet of aces on the mound makes Texas the favorite to win the 2010 national title. Here's a closer look at Texas' stacked deck.
||June 23, 2009: Throws five-hit, nine-strikeout complete game in CWS Finals win against LSU
||March 1, 2009: Records 10 strikeouts in no-hitter against Penn State
||June 19, 2009: Holds Arizona State to two runs over six innings in 4-3 win in CWS
||June 6, 2009: Throws complete game in super regional win against Texas Christian
||May 30, 2009: Holds Boston College to one hit over 52/3 scoreless innings to pick up win in 25-inning game
||"He's fearless, and he likes to compete. It helps when you throw 94-96. I wouldn't be afraid either if I threw that hard. He really is a three-pitch guy. And he is a very devoted athlete—he sees himself as a world-class athlete and trains that way."
||"He came from a small school, and the thing that he could do is really throw hard, and he still can, but I think he sees the difference between pitching and throwing hard. He's got a good breaking ball too, he does. That's what makes it—you can't sit on the fastball."
||"He's got a great slider, and he'll throw a changeup too. He has good command, and will throw all three of his pitches in any count, in any situation. He and Chance pitch a little bit alike in that you never really know what's coming."
||"His dad (Bruce) pitched in big leagues, and Chance has a major leaguer's mentality. It's that deep belief in himself—he's going to get you out or die trying. And he can make the ball do a lot of things. He makes things up as he goes sometimes, I think."
||"I don't know that he'll be a No. 4 starter. He's also proven to have that ability to take it from the fifth inning to the eighth, let's say. He does have a curveball that goes right over the top, and he throws 92 or so—a good, live fastball. But the changeup really is the money pitch."