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Texas Is Back In The Saddle As Preseason No. 1

For Texas baseball, pitching and defense have long been central to the program’s identity. That formula has helped the Longhorns become one of the most successful teams in college baseball.

The program that produced Roger Clemens, Huston Street, Greg Swindell and, more recently, Corey Knebel and Ty Madden, prides itself for its run-prevention.

That philosophy remains as true today under head coach David Pierce as it did when Augie Garrido and Cliff Gustafson were at the helm.

“I think at times (the Longhorns) get upset because they think that’s all I care about,” Pierce said. “I know we can hit. But if we pitch and defend, we can win a lot of ballgames.”

If that’s the formula, Texas figures to win a lot of games in 2022. Its combination of pitching and defense looks to be the best in the country.

The Longhorns have a deep, talented staff led by a premium rotation of lefthander Pete Hansen and righthanders Tristan Stevens and Tanner Witt. Closer Aaron Nixon returns. Their defense will be anchored by catcher Silas Ardoin, shortstop Trey Faltine and second baseman Mitchell Daly, who all stand out for their gloves.

The Longhorns piled up wins last year, going 50-17 to win the Big 12 Conference title and reach the semifinals of the College World Series. No team won more games in 2021 than Texas, and it was knocked out of the CWS by a pair of one-run losses to Mississippi State, the eventual national champion.

Now, with much of that team back and premium pitching and defense leading the way, expectations this season are high for the Longhorns. They enter the season ranked No. 1 in the Preseason Top 25, chasing their first national championship since 2005.

For a program of the Longhorns’ stature, lofty expectations come with the territory. No team has made the CWS more times than Texas. No team has been the top-ranked team in the preseason more often than Texas. Only Southern California has more national titles than Texas’ six.

So Pierce wants the Longhorns to do more than embrace the hype. He wants them to use it to their advantage.

“You don’t coach at Texas and expect to fly under the radar—ever,” said Pierce, the 2018 Coach of the Year. “If you’re average or great, you don’t fly under the radar. The key is to embrace the expectations.

“We like to understand that the pressure around Austin, Texas, and the University of Texas baseball. It is something we want to be on the positive side of. We want to be the aggressor versus sitting back and viewing it as we’re good or have opportunity to be great. We have to go get it.”

At the conclusion of the 2021 season, it was apparent that Texas would be a force in 2022.

Witt—one of the top recruits nationally in the class of 2020—had gone 5-0, 3.16 with 73 strikeouts in 57 innings as a freshman reliever, a role that had groomed the fireballer for a move to the rotation. Nixon, also a freshman in 2021, went 4-3, 2.12 with nine saves.

Daly hit .316/.413/.416 as a freshman, ranking second on the team in batting. Faltine would return for a third season as starting shortstop, and Ardoin was back for a second season as starting catcher.

Outfielders Douglas Hodo III, Eric Kennedy and Austin Todd would give the Longhorns three more experienced hitters in the lineup.

Left unknown was how the draft would affect Texas. All-American righthander Ty Madden was expected to be drafted and sign, but there were few certainties otherwise. When the process had played out, the Longhorns came out as winners in the 2021 draft.

Madden was selected 32nd overall by the Tigers and signed. Five other Longhorns also signed after being selected, including key reliever Cole Quintanilla and third baseman Cam Williams, fresh off a breakout season. But DH Ivan Melendez, who led the team in hitting (.319) and home runs (13) didn’t sign as a 16th-round pick of the Marlins. Hansen and Stevens went undrafted.

Hansen was draft-eligible after his second college season and went 9-1, 1.88. While his overall numbers didn’t suggest it, he had a challenging year, because his offseason preparation was limited by Covid-19. He worked his way back into the rotation by the stretch run, but he pitched with reduced velocity throughout the spring, making for a difficult evaluation for scouts.

In the end, Hansen felt like he had unfinished business at Texas and was happy to return for a third season.

“I have a great relationship with the guys in my class and I wanted to come back for my junior year,” Hansen said. “I knew there was something special we could do. Expectations are high, but we have something special in store.”

Stevens had a breakout 2021 in his fifth year of college baseball, going 11-3, 3.31 in 111.1 innings as the Longhorns’ No. 2 starter behind Madden. After battling injuries early in his career and then pitching well out of the bullpen in the abbreviated 2020 season, he ran with his opportunity in the Texas rotation in 2021. But Stevens isn’t overpowering and relies much more on his pitchability than pure stuff, making him an unusual pro prospect.

He, like Hansen, opted for another season on the Forty Acres.

“I thought my value was seen as a lot higher at Texas than it was professionally,” Stevens said. “At the end of the day, playing at Texas has been my dream. It seemed obvious to make the decision to come back.”

With their decisions to return, as well as Melendez’s and incoming freshman righthander Josh Stewart—who ranked as a top 200 draft prospect—opting to come to school, Texas’ 2022 outlook grew even brighter.

Witt didn’t have a decision to make about his future last July, but he said it meant a lot to see some of his teammates choose another season with the Longhorns.

“It speaks to the culture we have at Texas, the standard that we hold each other to,” he said. “They know when they come to the field every day, they’ll get better. It really is a brotherhood. It’s a family.”

Going into the draft, Pierce and the Texas staff didn’t think Stevens would return to the Longhorns. They believed they had a chance to get Hansen and Melendez back. To get back all three—a pair of experienced starters and the team’s leading hitter— was more than they had hoped for.

“The way it worked out, it solidifies our weekend rotation going into the season,” Pierce said. “Two-thirds of our weekend starters are back, and we were building Witt to get there anyhow. They give you a feeling of every time out, you have a shot to win the game.”

Pierce and pitching coach Sean Allen could line Hansen, Stevens and Witt up in any order and have an impressive rotation. Hansen has a steady demeanor and an exciting combination of stuff and pitchability. Stevens has the most Big 12 experience. Witt has the biggest pure stuff.

As preseason practice began, the expectation is that Texas will line it up Hansen, Stevens and Witt on Opening Weekend against Rice. Hansen’s ability to soak up innings and Stevens’ steadiness in the No. 2 role a year ago should get any weekend off to a good start. Witt has the pure stuff of a Friday starter, but Texas has the luxury of allowing him to settle in as a weekend starter rather than asking him to take on that responsibility right away.

The puzzle is indicative of the depth of Texas’ rotation. There are teams with a better—or at least flashier—pitcher or two at the front of the rotation, but no team has the full complement of starters to match the Longhorns.

The Texas rotation also stands out for being composed of three completely different profiles. Hansen is a lefthander from California who mixes solid stuff with above-average control. Stevens is a righthander who stands out for his pitchability and is a Missouri native who came to Texas via junior college. Witt has the look of a traditional power righthander who hails from Houston.

One thing that links Hansen, Stevens and Witt is their love for the Longhorns. All three grew up rooting for Texas, albeit doing so while spread across the country.

Witt remembers attending an alumni game when he was in about sixth grade and being impressed by the precision with which the Longhorns went about their business. Hansen was born in Texas before his family moved to California when he was 5 and said there was always some burnt orange in him. Stevens remembers watching Texas win the college football national championship in 2005 and then watching the Longhorns on Opening Day in 2011 on a family vacation to Austin.

“It doesn’t make sense why I was diehard fan, but I can go back to pictures of when I was 8 or 9 wearing burnt orange,” Stevens said.

The unique makeup of the Texas rotation wasn’t deliberate but wasn’t entirely by accident, either. Pierce said he and Allen, who also serves as recruiting coordinator, often talk about wanting to get as many diverse looks on the pitching staff as possible.

“It’s not just about getting the best arms,” Pierce said. “We don’t want all our righthanders to be the same. The more we can have diversity in our staff—the more we can create different angles, breaking balls, looks for opponents—the better it is.

“It just so happens we have a lefthander from California, a righthander from Missouri and a big Texan from the Houston area. The way its formulated has been interesting. It has a chance to be very beneficial for us.”

Hansen burst onto the college baseball scene as a freshman in 2020. In the abbreviated season, he did not allow an earned run in 17 innings. He struck out 18 batters and limited opposing hitters to just nine hits and two walks.

While a disjointed offseason left him playing catch-up early in the season in 2021, he still found a way to get outs. As he worked out some mechanical issues, he got back to what makes him successful on the mound—spotting up his fastball and pairing it with a good slider. Through those early struggles, Hansen said it was his love for the game that kept him focused.

“The mound is my favorite place to be, my most comfortable place to be,” Hansen said. “Dedication to my craft and the game kept me going.”

Now that Hansen straightened out his mechanics, he’s working to improve his velocity and his changeup. His fastball reached 96 mph last season but averaged 86-87.

Stevens can relate to Hansen’s 2021 season. He’s had a long journey to get to this point. As a high school junior, he was throwing in the low 80s and was committed to Central Missouri, a Division II school. After hitting a growth spurt the following year, he decided to start his college career in junior college, in an effort to improve his fortune in the recruiting process.

A strong performance in the fall of his freshman year put him on the radar of major conference schools. But once Texas—his dream school—got involved in his recruitment, it was an easy decision for Stevens. He still remembers “freaking out” when Allen followed him on Twitter, which was the first indication that the Longhorns were interested in him. A commitment soon followed, but then came setbacks in the form of injuries.

Stevens’ first two seasons with Texas were marred by injury, first Tommy John surgery and then a back injury. Eventually, he got on track and in 2021 earned a spot in the rotation. His growth and development in Austin has positioned him as one of the team’s leaders and respected veterans.

“His maturation has been off the charts,” Pierce said. “He understands how to take care of his body and he sets routines as well as any player we’ve had. He’s a good leader when he does that.”

Stevens pounds the strike zone with his fastball, changeup and slider. He isn’t overpowering—his fastball averaged 89-90 mph in 2021—and he won’t rack up strikeouts. Instead he works to induce weak contact and let his defense work behind him.

“I have Trey Faltine and Mitchell Daly as my middle infield. There’s not a better duo in the country you can ask for,” Stevens said. “It gives me confidence that, in my eyes, I have the best defenders in the country to back me up. I tell myself to be aggressive and let them hit it.”

Witt is also aggressive on the mound but creates a lot more swings and misses with his power stuff. His fastball got up to 96 mph and he pairs it with a hard curveball. He used his changeup sparingly out of the bullpen but worked with it much more during the summer in the Cape Cod League. He’s a good athlete on the mound and had two-way ability coming out of Episcopal High in Bellaire, though he’s settled in as a pitcher only in college.

Lebarron Johnson (Brian Westerholt Four Seam Images)

Cape Cod League Notes Week Seven

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The next area of growth in his game is learning how to go from pitching a couple innings out of the bullpen to turning the lineup over a couple times as a starter.

“The next step for him—can he do it for several innings?” Pierce said. “You watch him throw two pitches in the bullpen and you know he competes. Improvement from pitch to pitch in the mental game is his next step.”

Witt spent the summer pitching with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and on the Cape for Chatham, where his pitching coach was former Texas great and 15-year big league veteran Dennis Cook. His work this summer helped stretch him out to start, though Witt said he hasn’t changed his preparation much in anticipation of his new role.

“Every day, I’m trying to get a little bit better, whether that’s with my command or fourth pitch,” Witt said. “Every day picking one thing, not trying to figure it all out in one day.”

Backing up the rotation for Texas is Nixon at the back of the bullpen. He wasted no time last year establishing himself as the Longhorns’ closer and one of the best freshman relievers in the country. His fastball/slider combination was a challenge for opposing hitters, with his fastball reaching 96 mph.

Beyond his pure stuff, Nixon has the mentality suited for big moments.

“He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around,” Pierce said. “His stature says it. His work habits say it. He loves adrenaline and competition.”

That quartet makes it easy to appreciate the Texas pitching staff. Its pedigree, experience and talent are unmatched nationally. But what truly separates the Longhorns is the depth behind them.

Lefthander Lucas Gordon impressed as a freshman last season and figures to pitch important innings as a midweek starter or swingman on the weekends.

Righthanders Andre Duplantier and Travis Sthele and lefthander Sam Walbridge are coming off injury in 2021 and bring big upside. Righthander Jared Southard is ready to take a step forward, and Stewart could be the next freshman to break out on the mound for the Longhorns.

Texas has plenty of pitchers to turn to in a variety of roles and, especially early on, it will use a lot of them as it figures out the best alignment of its staff. Pierce envisions early-season game scripts where the bullpen door will be swinging open often.

“It’s going to be fun to see how we piece it together,” Pierce said. “Guys will need to be competitive in three outs and then we’re moving on to the next guy because the next guy also earned the right to pitch.”

The Longhorns say they have embraced the depth and internal competition it brings to the pitching staff.

“Every day—young, old, veteran, rookie—we’re learning from each other,” Witt said. “Whether it’s a grip, visualization, something on the mound, we’re learning. That’s a big part of why we’re successful. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, we’re going to try to learn from each other.”

The Longhorns’ goal for 2022 is simple: to be the last team standing. Texas came close in 2021 but fell short against Mississippi State and had to watch the Bulldogs celebrate a walk-off hit that sent them to the College World Series finals.

For the Bulldogs, it was a highlight on the way to the first national championship in program history. For the Longhorns, it was a third loss in four tries in 2021 against the eventual national champions and a tough end to what was an excellent season.

Pierce said the only disappointment in the way the season finished came from not having a chance to play for the national title. He was pleased with the way Texas played in Omaha on college baseball’s biggest stage.

“The players played the game the right way, and we absolutely had no regrets,” Pierce said. “Basically, we’re a hit away.

“No regrets. Just some disappointment, just because we didn’t have the opportunity to play the last game.”

Texas went 3-2 in Omaha, losing twice to Mississippi State by one run. To come so close taught the Longhorns a lot.

“Mississippi State, that was their third straight year (in the CWS),” Hansen said. “You could tell, especially in the first game, they were a little more comfortable. That experience will help when we get there. That’s what we’re playing for, but really what we’re playing for is to win every day and beat what’s in front of you.”

Such a close call also left Texas wanting more.

“Everyone left that tournament very hungry for the next year,” Witt said. “What led up to this year being so exciting is how hungry we are and not being satisfied with just making it there. We hold ourselves to a high standard. We want to be winners of that final game.”

The Longhorns understand the expectations that they’re playing with this spring. And while they want to embrace them, they also know they can’t let them overwhelm them.

Playing at Texas means always being on a big stage and getting opponents’ best shot. There’s no sneaking up on teams when you’re wearing a burnt orange block T. Being tagged as the No. 1 team in the preseason will only make the target on their backs that much bigger.

Pierce knows the Longhorns can’t allow it to become too much.

“Eliminating distractions. Eliminating rankings (and) outside noise. Enjoying the present. Being with the team. Enjoying the competition. If we can do that, we can maximize who we are,” he said.

Last year’s team was particularly good at maintaining the mentality it needed to win. The Longhorns consistently responded to adversity on the way to a stellar season and a Big 12 championship. They have enough returners from that team to apply those lessons this spring when adversity inevitably strikes.

Stevens said one of the things that stands out most from 2021 was the Longhorns’ makeup.

“We were a great team,” he said. “At the time, we were the best team—not just skill-wise, but how we were in locker room and handled each other—we were the best team I’ve been a part of.

“You learn from that to leave it all out on the field. You can’t control the results. All you can do is go in there with the right mentality, playing for the guy next to you and anything is possible.

“We came up a bit short, but that’s what next year is for.”

Next year has arrived in Texas.

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