There’s a lot to think about on a two-hour drive home from College Station in the dead of night. Making the return trip, I thought a little about the surprisingly good cup of coffee I had bought from Chevron, thought a lot about my falling GPA -- not the Mendoza Line but definitely won’t be confused with Ted Williams’ 1941 batting average -- and I thought too much about how dark, creepy and deserted Highway 21 was and how I hoped I wouldn’t meet the fate Justin Long did in Jeepers Creepers.
But I spent the most time thinking about what I had seen from Taylor Jungmann in Texas’ 4-2 win over the Aggies. His stat line speaks for itself -- nine innings pitched, 12 strikeouts, two earned runs and 121 pitches thrown – but it’s becoming obvious that box scores can no longer tell the whole story when you’re talking about Jungmann.
I think that Jungmann is the best athlete to wear a Longhorn uniform since Vince Young. I think this because of not only the impressive numbers that he puts up, but also because of what he means to his team and the way in which he plays the game. But I mostly think this because of Jungmann’s ability to match and even exceed any expectations we ultimately set for him.
Think about Vince for a second, specifically the 2006 National Championship. Going into it, we knew that Texas’ only chance to win would be to match and eventually outscore USC’s historic offense. And we knew that responsibility would fall to Vince Young. We also knew that Vince would probably be great, because he was all year, but if he wasn’t then there was absolutely no shot. Not only did Vince meet the “greatness” requirement, he surpassed it. There are really no words to describe the 267/200 stat line he posted, and there is no way to overstate the importance of his performance. If Vince doesn’t do exactly what he did, the Longhorns lose. Like, if he throws for 267 yards but rushes for 190, there is most likely no burnt orange celebration. It was a one-man show, a fantastic performance. But it was just enough to ensure a win. We expected “great.” Somehow, Vince gave us better than that.
Taylor Jungmann’s career reminds me of that. The two sports are completely different, and the spotlight isn’t on Jungmann like it was always on Vince. But consider what Jungmann has done in his three years.
He has 33 wins, with six losses. He is 12-0 this year and undefeated at home. Currently, he has the nation’s second-longest win streak. Twice, he has been sent out in postseason do-or-die situations and come through. In his freshman year, 2009, Texas had to win the second game of the CWS Finals against LSU to stay alive. The Longhorns throw the 19-year-old Jungmann out there in the biggest pressure-cooker of his life, and does this: 9 ip, five hits, one run (unearned), nine strikeouts.
Last year, Texas had dropped game one against TCU in the Super Regional. Once again, the Longhorns were in a must-win situation. Jungmann gets the draw, and does this: 8.1 ip, six hits, one earned run, and nine strikeouts.
In those two crucial games, Jungmann allowed one earned run total. He struck out eighteen total, allowed eleven hits, and needed just .2 innings of relief help. This all on a national stage and with a gargantuan weight on his back.
We knew going into Thursday’s game against A&M and its ace John Stilson that Texas was not going to score many runs. With that knowledge, it was pretty much an accepted fact that Jungmann had to be great or else the Aggies would probably win and then take control of a very important Big 12 Conference race. The Longhorns ended up scoring four, though one was unearned and all came in a rather weird fashion, but they didn’t plate a run until seventh inning. It was clear that Stilson didn’t have his best stuff – far from it – but he still got out of any jam he got himself into. In the third inning, the Longhorns left the bases loaded. In the fourth, they left two on. That’s two consecutive innings with the final out being recorded with two runners in scoring position in each situation. And they just kept coming up with nothing to show for it, choking away potential scoring opportunities in the biggest game of the season. As a relatively unbiased spectator, I was frustrated. I’m sure Jungmann, from the dugout, was incredibly frustrated -- though he’d never tell you that. He was doing his best to keep the Aggies quiet, but he would eventually need some offensive support.
The Ags pushed a run across in the third and then another in the fifth. But Jungmann remained calm, trusted that somehow, someway, run support would come, and focused on his job. He blocked out a very loud Olsen Field crowd. He fought through a sticky humidity. He pitched from behind. And, most demoralizing to any Aggie, he got better as the game went on.
A rhythm was developed during the sixth inning, and the junior pitcher never looked back. In the last four innings, Texas A&M didn’t get a legal hit (fielder’s choice). In that span, Jungmann struck out seven batters. For comparison, Stilson struck out three all game.
In the postgame interviews, Jungmann prefers a low word count. If you pitch him a yes or no question, he’ll simply respond “yes” or “no.” He doesn’t concede emotion or any signs of vulnerability. This persona will soon serve him well in the big leagues: the less you know a guy, the less you see him smile or laugh or grimace or frown, the more intimidating he is on the mound. Jungmann knows this.
No, you’ll never get a great sound byte out of him. But an interview with Jungmann is always interesting because there is more to learn from his preferred silence than there is from another player’s exuberance.
I’ve learned two things about him. First, he’s not intimidated by anybody. A few weeks ago against Oklahoma, Jungmann was in a bases-loaded jam. At the plate was Garrett Buechele, who happens to be hitting .339 with 55 RBI and 7 home runs this year. Jungmann got Buechele to fly out. When asked about the clash between the ace pitcher and the accomplished slugger, Jungmann said he didn’t even think about who was standing sixty feet away from him at home. Didn't even notice it. It’s this mentality that makes him the great pitcher he is, because he has the confidence to throw his best stuff regardless of the situation or the batter.
The second thing I’ve learned about Jungmann is that he shrinks the situation. College World Series? Okay. Elimination game? Alright. Biggest game of the year? I guess. He doesn’t make the mistake of getting over-amped for anything. The constant downplaying of every pivotal at-bat and game is Jungmann’s unique way of battling the mass of expectations a greedy fan base puts on him.
Most players aren’t like this. The other day I asked Texas’ best hitter Erich Weiss what it was like to be relied on so heavily. He admitted that there was a lot of pressure with his responsibility. There's nothing at all wrong with that, but I am fairly certain Jungmann would ever admit any sort of pressure or acknowledge any standard set for him. I’m not sure the P word is even in his vocabulary -- and that’s how he manages to deliver no matter the situation or the expectation.
As you may know, the Longhorns have an incredibly inconsistent offense. Yes, it’s an offense that usually finds a way to cobble together just enough runs, but it’s an offense that leaves a lot of runners in scoring position and takes about half a game to heat up. Because of this, Texas has relied on its pitching staff more than ever this year. That starts with Jungmann, the Friday starter. He sets the tone for each and every weekend series. The Longhorns’ best (and sometimes only) chance at a successful weekend rests on his right arm. And each time he takes the mound, he wins.
As his career has grown, Jungmann has been branded as a sure thing. What’s most amazing is that, no matter the circumstance, he keeps meeting -- and exceeding -- that expectation.