Omaha — the Mecca of college baseball, the site of the College World Series and the expected destination for Longhorn baseball teams every year.
Behind pitchers like Taylor Jungmann and Cole Green, hitters like Brandon Loy and Tant Shepherd, and the all-time winningest coach in college baseball history, Texas reached the College World Series for the 34th time last season, a Division I record. Longhorns skipper Augie Garrido is back for his 16th year on the 40 Acres but Jungmann, Green, Loy and Shepherd are all pursuing professional baseball careers.
Without any of its starting pitchers from a year ago and after losing three of its top four hitters, Texas could have a tough time getting back to Omaha.
“I do know that we’ve gone to Omaha with less talent than we have right now,” Garrido said. “But talent doesn’t get you to Omaha, quite honestly. It’s part of it, but it’s not even the most important. Attitude and teamwork are the most important parts.”
Last year marked the seventh time since Garrido took over as the Texas head coach in 1997 that he took the Longhorns to the College World Series. It was Garrido’s pitching staff, one that boasted the nation’s second-lowest ERA a year ago, that carried Texas to Omaha. The Longhorns bring back Corey Knebel, who tied a school record with 19 saves as a freshman in 2011, but will have three new starting pitchers in their rotation — sophomore Nathan Thornhill, junior Hoby Milner and freshman John Curtiss — after Sam Stafford, who was expected to be Texas’ ace, went down with a season-ending shoulder injury.
“You can’t replace a guy like Taylor. You can’t replace a guy like Cole or Sam,” said Thornhill, who will start the season opener against Duke on Friday. “We definitely have a lot of young guys who know how to throw strikes and aren’t afraid to throw strikes, which is a huge deal. We’ve got a lot of guys who are ready to challenge hitters, whether they’re a freshman or senior.”
While the guys Texas was sending to the mound were mowing down the competition, the players in the Longhorns’ lineup didn’t fare as well. Texas posted a team batting average of .269, the third-lowest in the Big 12 and the 224th-best in the country, last season. The Longhorns lost three members of that lineup, including Shepherd and Loy, who were two of their three batters that hit better than .300 last season. Texas’ lineup this year should feature many underclassmen, especially after junior center fielder Cohl Walla suffered a torn ACL during the offseason.
“I think we have some good chances [to get to the College World Series],” said Erich Weiss, who led the team with a .348 batting average in 2011. “There might be a few [different] lineups after the first week going into the second week. Hopefully after that we can get it settled.”
Whether the Longhorns’ lineup, rotation or bullpen will be good enough to get them back to Omaha remains to be seen. Texas is a relatively inexperienced squad but knows what it takes to get there.
“We have enough talent on the pitching staff, we’re going to be able to play defense at a high enough level, and we’re going to be able to play offense at a higher level than we did last year,” Garrido said. “It’s about the fundamentals of the game. If we can master the fundamentals of the game, accept the roles that each player has in teamwork and maintain the right attitude, anything can happen. That’s the beauty of it.”