Starting pitching isn’t the problem. Closing a game out in the ninth isn’t, either. But if the No. 6 Longhorns have an Achilles’ heel, it’s that their pitching sometimes falls apart in the middle innings.
Take the seven runs Texas gave up in the seventh against Oklahoma State on March 27 in a 10-3 loss that gave the Cowboys the series, or the four runs the Longhorns gave up last Saturday against Baylor in a 7-6 loss. Granted, it is a small sample size, but head coach Augie Garrido knows it’s a problem.
“In two of the three conference games that we’ve lost, it’s been as a result of us not being able to get from the fifth to the eighth inning,” he said. “We have been choosing right- or left-handed pitchers based on matchups to get to our closer, and we’ve been unsuccessful twice.”
So Garrido plans to fix it.
Texas has moved sophomore left-hander Hoby Milner out of the starting weekend rotation (Milner has been the usual Saturday starter since March 15) and into the bullpen, a move that bolsters Texas’ relief pitching — Milner is 3-2 on the year with a 2.72 ERA — and allows Sam Stafford (5-0, 1.34 ERA) to join the weekend rotation as the Sunday starter.
“If Hoby is usually going to give us five innings of work each weekend in one start, we would instead like to see him give us five innings over a span of 2-3 games,” Garrido said.
“Now, he can get us from the sixth through the seventh and eighth innings. Hoby’s making a big sacrifice because every pitcher wants to be a starter. But this is what we have to do to plug this gap.”
Milner is the best candidate for the move to the bullpen because he’s a strike thrower, shows good command of his pitches and has a mentality as flexible as his elastic left arm.
“This is an opportunity for me to pitch every game, so that’s exciting,” he said. “We need another lefty out of the pen, so I can help.”
Stafford resumes his old post as the Sunday pitcher, a step up in competition from the Tuesday games he’s been starting and the non-conference opponents the weekday schedule brings.
“The dugout and the environment will be a little bit more intense during the weekend games, but I have to have the same approach,” Stafford said.
All this switching around means senior Cole Green, who has been the Sunday starter the past month, will take the mound on Saturday.
Garrido stresses that these staff swaps are neither promotions nor demotions, just a way for Texas to maximize the use of its best pitchers against weekend conference foes. The plan will be for the starter to go about five or six innings — unless it’s Taylor Jungmann, who usually doesn’t need much relief help — and then have Milner pitch the Longhorns through the eighth. There, closing pitcher Corey Knebel, who hasn’t allowed an earned run in 25.1 consecutive innings, will finish the game in the ninth. In essence, Texas is building a bridge to Knebel.
This formula will be put into action this weekend as Texas (25-8, 9-3 Big 12) takes on conference rival Texas Tech. The Red Raiders (22-13, 5-7) are sixth in the Big 12 standings, but they hit at a high clip, averaging six runs a game. Tech has scored 38 percent of its runs in the sixth, seventh or eighth innings, so it should be a good first exam in middle-relief for Milner, a test he is ready for.
“Whenever they need me, I’ll come in and get us outs,” Milner said. “I’m the same pitcher, with the same approach, whether I’m starting or coming out of the pen.”