Texas continues to struggle hitting in conference play, OU and Aggies lay ahead

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If you’re a Texas fan, how worrying is 3-1?

That’s the Longhorns’ record since last Monday, which includes a two-run victory over lowly Dallas Baptist and a 2-1 series split with Texas Tech, a 23-15 team that’s sixth in the Big 12 standings and 248th in the country in hits allowed per nine innings at 10.97.
Against the Red Raiders, Texas got 14 hits — over all three days.

That’s pretty troubling for Texas against the worst pitching staff in the Big 12, which boasts a 5.99 ERA in conference play.

One week is no reason to panic, but the past seven days serve as a pretty accurate snapshot of the season: sporadic hits, few home runs and a meager on-base percentage from the leadoff spot.

At 27-9 and No. 7 in Baseball America’s most recent poll, it’s tempting to argue that the offensive sluggishness is no real concern as long as the team keeps winning — after all, the team’s collective ERA of 2.49 is 11th best in the nation and Texas is the best fielding team in the Big 12. But a look forward to the remaining schedule shows that the Longhorns won’t be able to rely on defense alone through the rest of the season.

The first real challenge will probably be on April 29 when Oklahoma comes to town for a weekend series. The 17th-ranked Sooners started off the season on a tear and, despite some recent stumbles, they are still some of the best in the nation statistically. Like Texas, Oklahoma pitches well, with a 2.98 ERA and a certified ace in Michael Rocha.

However, the Sooners have even more in common with a team that beat Texas twice near the end of March: Oklahoma State. Their pitching staffs might not be as deep as Texas, although that is arguable, but they are more stacked at the top. Oklahoma has a 6-2 Saturday starter in Burch Smith and three different third-game pitchers with records of .500 or better.

The biggest difference between Texas and Oklahoma, and what should cause the most worry, is the Sooners’ offensive prowess. While the Longhorns are 148th in scoring in Division I, OU is 11th with more than 7.9 runs per game.

Then No. 6 Texas A&M looms at the end of May. The Aggies are the best pitching team in the conference and still bat .291 as a team, compared to UT’s .266 average.

The easiest solution to the problem might be at the top of Texas’ batting order, which head coach Augie Garrido likes to change from week to week. Brandon Loy is .186 in the last four games in the leadoff spot and Mark Payton, who also bats first much of the time, has just one hit during the same time span.

The most obvious replacement is Erich Weiss, who leads the team in on-base percentage and is the only Longhorn in the top 15 in the Big 12 in batting average. However, he’s also the team’s best slugger and usually hits cleanup. Tant Shepherd is another guy with a reasonable on-base percentage and but he’s also a power hitter and not really suited for the leadoff position.

The answer might be junior Tim Maitland, a disciplined batter who can hit both righties and lefties well and has led off for Texas a few times. More impressively, he has a .350 on-base percentage, good enough for fifth on the team despite just 30 at bats. Lucas Kephart is another good, experienced hitter with a high on-base percentage with just 18 starts.

Brandon Loy looks like the best bet for now or at least the most reliable. But with a dangerous portion of the schedule ahead, Garrido would be smart to try out a few more options, especially before Texas faces two of its biggest rivals in very important series.