Paul Montalbano

Montalbano continues to adjust to new role

Center fielder Paul Montalbano prepares for a pitch in a game against Oklahoma last weekend. Montalbano replaced the injured Cohl Walla in March and has has .400 since making the move to center field.

Photo Credit: Andrew Edmonson | Daily Texan Staff

Funny thing is, Paul Montalbano actually thinks he’s best suited to be a pitcher.


“Oh yeah, I can still pitch, I can still throw it right past people — high 80s,” he said. “Honestly, I think that’s what I’m best at.”


When Montalbano, now a senior, signed with Texas two years ago out of Weatherford College, he thought he’d be pitching. He had compiled a 13-5 career record at Weatherford ­— two of those wins being no-hitters.


“It’s kind of funny because I got recruited to pitch, but that didn’t work out so great once I got here,” he said. “I guess the coaches saw me as a better outfielder.”


The Texas coaching staff decided to take Montalbano off the mound and back in to the batters’ box — he had, after all, demonstrated an ability to hit with a .345 career batting average at Weatherford.


Ever since Cohl Walla fouled a pitch off his left knee March 29, the Longhorns have needed a center fielder. Montalbano has been their man.


“Walla is a great player, but I just try to get in there and compete with the other guys, just play balls to the wall,” he said. “I was glad to get my chance.”


In 18 games as Walla’s replacement, Montalbano is batting .400. The Longhorns are 14-4 with him as the starting center fielder, and are scoring five runs a game. For comparison, Walla had a .247 average before he was sidelined with a deep bone contusion.


Montalbano may cover less ground in the outfield — Walla is the fastest guy on the team — but he is hardly a defensive downgrade. He’s had 59 putouts in 60 chances with no errors. Walla, on the other hand, had 39 chances with 36 putouts, and one error. With Montalbano in center, the Longhorns have not missed a beat defensively. In fact, they might be a bit better.


“Instead of talking about Montalbano filling in for Walla, it may soon be Walla filling in for Montalbano,” said head coach Augie Garrido. “Paul has played center field as well as it needs to be played. Maybe Paul is the best center fielder for us right now.”


Montalbano began the year as the starting left fielder, but was demoted because of an inability to hit. Since his lucky break, he has found a new strategy — not trying as hard.


“It’s kind of funny, because in the beginning of the year I was getting to the park like three to four hours before the game to work out, and I would get tired,” Montalbano said. “Lately, I’ve just been trying to relax.”


In the majors, the fifth spot in the lineup is usually reserved for the bigger hitters, the Robinson Canós and Lance Berkmans of the league. But for this quirky Texas offense, where the long ball is a long shot, Montalbano has fit in perfectly. Last Tuesday against Texas State, he hit an RBI-triple. Friday against Oklahoma, he went 2-4 with a go-ahead double. The next day, he hit an RBI-double.


“I was very reluctant to put him in the five-hole because, obviously, he’s not the prototype five-hole hitter,” Garrido said. “But maybe we’re not the prototype offense, either. He sustains rallies.”


Last year, in his first game as a Longhorn, Montalbano had a pinch-hitting opportunity in the bottom of the ninth against Houston at Minute Maid Park. There were two outs and two runners on base. On a 2-1 pitch, he hit a sharp liner that looked like it would pass over the left side of the infield and, at least, score the game-tying run. But Houston’s shortstop, Blake Kelso, leapt up high and caught it to end the game; Montalbano’s heroics were halted by a bad break, a “disappointing” play. This year, he got his break, a second chance to start — and has made the most of it.


“This could be my last year of playing baseball,” he said. “I’m probably not going to make it to the majors, so I’m trying to end this season on a winning note.”

Baseball

Texas moved one step closer Saturday to first place in the Big 12 with a 4-3 win over Oklahoma at Disch-Falk Field. The Longhorns took the first two games of the series, and will go for the sweep on Sunday.

“The sweep is huge with the way percentages work in the Big 12,” first baseman Tant Shepherd said. “A sweep in this conference is really big and that’s something we want to do.”

Cole Green picked up the win for Texas but got into early trouble after a perfect first inning. Green walked leadoff hitter Tyler Ogle in the second inning, and after a sac bunt from Cameron Seitzer moved Ogle to second base, Ricky Eisenberg put the Sooners on the board with an RBI single to right field. Oklahoma scored two more runs on a Caleb Bushyhead triple three batters later, and lead 3-0 heading into the bottom of the second inning.

“I was getting under the ball and I was getting out of rhythm and felt a little uncomfortable,” Green said. “Every inning, every pitch is a battle.”

Erich Weiss responded in the home half of the second, hitting a leadoff homerun over the right field wall. It was Weiss’ third homerun of the year, and the freshman extended his hitting streak to 15 consecutive games.

“I was going to back off the plate a little bit, and [Oklahoma pitcher Burch Smith] ended up leaving one up in the strike zone and I just put a good swing on it,” Weiss said. “I kind of knew that one was gone.”

Texas continued the rally in the third inning. The Longhorns began the inning with four consecutive singles, culminating in Shepherd’s two-RBI shot through the left side of the infield. Paul Montalbano added another run with a RBI bloop-double that fell fair of the left field line.

“That was a little lucky. I haven’t had a hit like that all season,” Montalbano said. “I’ll take it.”

Texas head coach Augie Garrido was reluctant to put Montalbano fifth in the batting order, but said the senior had a knack for sustaining rallies in a variety of ways.

“He’s not the prototype five-hole hitter, but maybe we’re not the prototype offense,” Garrido said. “We’ve got to put people into positions were they can keep the rally going.”

The four runs were all Texas needed for the win. Green retired eight consecutive batters after his rough second inning. The senior struck out six in six innings, and moved to 4-3 for the season.

Corey Knebel recorded his 14th save on the season, but had trouble in the ninth inning. He walked the leadoff batter and hit another to put two on for the Sooners.

“I’m upset at myself I let those guys get on. I know I’m a better pitcher than they are hitters, and I shouldn’t have let them get on base,” Knebel said.

The freshman struck out one and got the final batter to fly out to right field to end the game.

Sam Stafford will start for Texas on Sunday as the Longhorns try for the sweep.

Friday 

Friday’s 5-0 win over Oklahoma was more than just another Texas ‘W’ in the win column.
For Augie Garrido, it means the achievement of a milestone: career win No. 1,800.

“The truth of it, with no modesty included, its significance is not deniable because it represents so many extraordinary people and the job they’ve done,” said Garrido, who is the NCAA’s all-time winningest coach. “No one person really accomplishes anything without the other people around him.”

Taylor Jungmann was the key catalyst, tossing his third complete-game shutout of the season, and his first since handcuffing Hawaii in late February. In 107 pitches of work, Jungmann (10-0) fanned nine Sooners and allowed just four hits.

“Everything worked well for me tonight,” he said.

The junior held his own as the Longhorns’ offense struggled to find their footing, pitching out of a few early jams, including a bases-loaded situation in the third inning against Oklahoma’s Garrett Buechele — a .386 batter with already 51 RBI and 7 homeruns.

“He had the bases loaded with one out [the third inning] and the fifth inning he had runners on third and second with one out and he got out of those innings. Those were the innings that changed the game,” Garrido said. “The momentum shifted.”

Jungmann’s infielders agreed.

“You look at Buechele’s stats and you know he’s good, but Jungmann is fearless,” said junior shortstop Brandon Loy. “He’s not scared of anybody. He pitches his game, he doesn’t care who’s up there.”

The bats picked up their ace pitcher in the fourth, as senior center fielder Paul Montalbano drove in Tant Shepherd with a double to left center, his thirteenth RBI of the year.

“Their pitcher left it up and over the plate so I was just trying to put a ball in the outfield,” Montalbano said.

In the fifth inning, Loy hit a two-out triple to center off Oklahoma starter Michael Rocha. Mark Payton laid down a drag bunt to bring him home.

The Longhorns tacked two more runs on in the sixth. Freshman Erich Weiss started the rally with a triple to the left field line — his sixth triple of the year, a Texas freshman record — and Montalbano brought him home with a single to right. Montalbano moved to second on a passed ball, and Jonathan Walsh drove him in with a single to center.

“Our offense was ready to play today, and we played good defense,” Payton said. “We did the little things right today. This was a huge win.”

Texas struck once more in the seventh, as Loy jacked a leadoff home run right over the 375-foot sign in left. It’s the first home run of the year for the junior, and the second of his career.

“It was a fastball in, and I just squared it up,” he said. “The wind was on my side.”

Loy finished his day 3-for-4, just a double shy of the cycle. Fitting that his best day in a Longhorn uniform came against the rival he loves to play — and has never lost to.

“It was a good day for me,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, we haven’t been beaten by them. We’ve swept them two years in a row. It’s the most fun series for me. There’s something about playing Oklahoma that gives you some extra motivation.”

Weiss’ sixth-inning triple increased his hit-streak to 14 games. The third baseman is now 11 away from Michael Torres’ school record of 25.

“It’s great to keep the streak going,” Weiss said. “But I didn’t really think about the streak today. I know it’s there, but I’m not thinking about it. It’s good if you don’t, because then you don’t have high expectations.”

Dominant pitching and an offense that showcased a bit of everything — runs scored on two-out hitting, bunts, and even the rare homerun — proved a devastating combination for the No. 14 Sooners.

“Our team scrapped it out. I think we showed that we can hit good pitching,” Garrido said. “I think we’re moving forward.”

Paul Montalbano reaches base during the Longhorns 2-0 victory Tuesday at home against Texas State. His triple put Texas ahead for good.

Photo Credit: Shannon Kintner | Daily Texan Staff

It was an ominous start to Sam Stafford’s night on the mound.

The junior, just three days removed from his first loss of the year Saturday at Kansas, threw the first pitch of the game for a ball. For the second pitch, he threw another one. The third pitch brought the same result. Quickly, Stafford was down in the count, 3-0, to Texas State’s leadoff batter Tyler Sibley.

And that’s when he began to fight back.

The lefthander gunned a fastball down the inner half of the plate for his first strike, and then he did it again to draw the count full. Sibley fouled off the next pitch, then watched the third strike rip right past him for the first out of the game.

Stafford’s first-inning triumph was a microcosm of No. 7 Texas’ 2-0 win over the Bobcats (25-15) Tuesday night: No matter how many bad pitches the Longhorns throw, or how many runners they leave on base, or however many great plays the other team makes, this team seems to always find a way to come out on top.

Through five innings, Texas (31-10) put on a clinic on how to leave runners stranded on base and throw away precious outs.

Jacob Felts and Mark Payton hit safely in the third inning and Tant Shepherd struck out swinging to end the frame. Paul Montalbano got on base via a walk in the fourth, then was caught stealing. Jonathan Walsh doubled to lead off the fifth inning and Alex Silver drew a walk, but Felts bunted into a rare 5-6-3 double play to squander Texas’ scoring chance.

“Texas State played a brilliant defensive game,” said head coach Augie Garrido. “Their timing, matchups, executions were all right.”

Shepherd began the sixth with a single to right field, but a poor sacrifice bunt attempt by Erich Weiss had Shepherd thrown out at second. With Weiss on first, Montalbano smacked a fastball right over the plate to right-center field; long enough for a triple, bringing Weiss home from first and giving the Longhorns’ the run had been eluding them.

“That’s the best ball I’ve hit since I’ve been here,” Montalbano said. “I’m not really a power hitter, so when I swing for the fences, the coaches get on to me. But he [Texas State pitcher Lee Colon] left the ball over the plate, and I was able to put a good swing on it and find the gap.”

It is unusual when Texas has to rely on power hitting to win games — Garrido likes to tailor his offense around bunting and small-ball principles.

“That’s something we keep in our back pocket in case nothing else works: When in doubt, go power,” he joked.

By the time the Longhorns had put their second and final run on the board in the eighth inning — a bloop single to shallow right field off the bat of Walsh to score Shepherd — Stafford’s day was long done. Because of the 54 pitches he had thrown against Kansas, Garrido and pitching coach Skip Johnson didn’t want to test the limits of Stafford’s arm, and pulled him after three innings.

“We wanted him to get back in a zone and get back in his comfort zone and give him a chance to regain some confidence,” Garrido said.

A collection of bullpen pitchers would reprieve Stafford the rest of the way — Nathan Thornhill went 2.2 innings, and Kendal Carrillo, Hoby Milner and Corey Knebel each worked one inning. Carrillo (4-0) got the win and Knebel picked up his thirteenth save of the year — second best in the nation.

“The bullpen did a great job tonight, it was clutch when it needed to be,” Stafford said. “I was scheduled to only go three innings so I was trying to be in control of each situation and establish the strike zone.”

Stafford dug himself into an early hole but fought back, strike by strike, to finish on top. And then, his team followed suit.
 

Texas used a two-run eighth inning to complete a comeback and beat UT-Pan American 4-2 on Tuesday. Mark Payton hit a ground-rule double that scored Paul Montalbano, right before it hopped over the right field wall.

“Our pitchers settled down after a rough start and took control of the game,” said Texas head coach Augie Garrido. “The defense played well behind them and we manufactured the runs at the right time.”

Austin Dicharry started for Texas but only lasted one inning after surrendering two runs. It was Dicharry’s first appearance since last April, and the junior walked two and gave up four hits.

“I came out there a little amped up. I think I was trying to overdo it a bit with that curveball,” Dicharry said. “Unfortunately, I was up in the strike zone today and didn’t do the best I could.”

Brandon Loy cut into the Broncs’ lead in the third inning with a two-out double that scored Montalbano. Payton had a chance to bring Loy home the next at-bat but grounded out to shortstop and couldn’t beat the throw to first base. Texas was plagued by another slow start offensively, and had only three hits through five innings.

“We know at some point we’re going to find our rhythm and score runs,” Payton said. “We’re not hoping it’s going to come or thinking it’s going to come. We know it’s going to come.”

Josh Urban pitched four innings out of the bullpen for Texas in a no-decision. The sophomore struck out six while giving up only one hit and one walk but said it wasn’t his best work.

“I missed a couple spots with the slider and I didn’t feel like I had my legs with me, he said. “They felt a little heavier than normal. I’m a quick-tempo guy, so I was rushing a little bit and that mixed in with it also.”

Payton tied the game in the sixth inning on a double down the left field line by Erich Weiss, and finished the game 3-4 with two runs and an RBI.

The Longhorns took the lead for good in the eighth with Payton’s ground-rule double that fell a few feet short of a home run. Payton is still waiting for the first home run of his career.

“Me and [UT first base coach] Travis Tucker joke with each other that it’s getting closer and closer each time,” Payton said. “We have a joke with the whole team, that the field’s too big for us little guys.”

Cohl Walla pinch-hit for Texas three batters later and hit an RBI single to left field that scored Erich Weiss. Walla has been nursing a left leg contusion for several weeks, and it was his first action since March 29. Dex Kjerstad pinch-ran for Walla, who isn’t quite ready to run yet.

“Everything felt fine in pregame hitting, except when I went into the outfield to run,” Walla said. “I can’t run at all right now.”

Kendal Carrillo pitched a perfect eighth inning to set up the save for Corey Knebel. It was Knebel’s 12th save of the year, the best in the Big 12.

It took them longer than they may have liked, but the No. 6 Longhorns got just enough out of their offense in the weekend finale against Texas Tech, rallying back in the eighth inning to top the Red Raiders 3-1, giving Texas a 2-1 series victory.

Reliever Hoby Milner tossed a no-hit frame to begin the seminal eighth inning, and the Texas offense made sure not to squander the opportunity. Paul Montalbano started the rally in the bottom with a single to left field and then advanced to second on a Jordan Etier-sacrifice bunt. Lucas Kephart came in to the game as a pinch-hitter for Alex Silver and drew a walk on a full count, putting runners on first and second for Texas.

On the next pitch, Brandon Loy took matters into his own hands, lined a single to right field to score Montalbano and tie the game up at one apiece.

Tant Shepherd then registered his first hit of the game, hitting the first pitch he saw down the left-field line for a huge two-run triple, plating Loy and Tim Maitland, who was pinch-running for Kephart.

“The veteran leadership came through big time with Paul getting the leadoff single in the eighth, Etier moving him over, then Loy coming through, and Shepherd coming through with a big hit to separate the two teams,” said Texas head coach Augie Garrido.

Loy began the game with a leadoff double to left field on an 0-2 pitch and then advanced to third on a productive Mark Payton groundout. But Shepherd struck out swinging, and Erich Weiss hit a slow roller to Tech pitcher Brennan Stewart, and Loy was left stranded at third, 90 feet away from the first run of the game.

Starting pitcher Sam Stafford pitched well in his first weekend start since the beginning of the season, giving up one run and striking out four in five innings of work.

“It was a huge game,” Stafford said. “You have to focus on doing your job and giving your team the best chance to win. If you take care of those things, a majority of the time, we’re going to win the ball game.”

Stafford was pulled after he walked Tech’s Kelby Tomlinson to start the sixth inning. Freshman Nathan Thornhill replaced him on the mound and finished the inning for Texas, striking out two. But the Longhorns couldn’t capitalize in the bottom of the frame, as Loy flied out to center, and Payton and Shepherd struck out.

The seventh inning came and went much the same way — solid pitching, this time from sophomore Milner, negated by poor offense, with Kevin Lusson grounding into a double play to end the inning.

Freshman closer Corey Knebel came on in the ninth and picked up his 11th save of the year, while the win went to Milner (4-2).

“The bullpen was what it needs to be for us to be consistent,” Garrido said. “We brought in Hoby, and he’s been valuable in these games. He gave us two innings, and we were able to get to Knebel, who did his thing.”

It wasn’t a perfect game for the slow-starting Longhorns, but it was enough to give Texas (27-9, 11-4 Big 12) its fourth series win over a conference opponent on the year, one against a quality opponent in Texas Tech (23-15, 6-9).

“To come back and find a way to get this done, it gives us some confidence,” Loy said. “This team has it. It’s all there; we just have to find a way to get it going earlier.”

Augie Garrido admits that it’s sometimes hard to get his squad motivated for weekday games. A small crowd, a not-so-big opponent and a full day of classes don’t exactly inspire his Longhorns to play with top-notch energy.

But the head coach also knows that as long as Texas remembers to keep pitching well, playing solid defense and delivering some timely hits, his team will be just fine.

Tuesday night was no different, as No. 6 Texas topped Dallas Baptist 3-1, its eighth win in nine games.

“We didn’t have that high level of energy or a high competitive focus,” Garrido said. “We weren’t flat, either, but we just kind of moved along.”

Dallas Baptist (21-12) jumped out to a quick one-run lead off Texas starter Sam Stafford in the first inning, but the Texas offense pulled it even in the bottom half of the frame, thanks to a two-out RBI single by Erich Weiss that scored Paul Montalbano.

In anticipation of his upcoming start on Sunday, Stafford only went 2.2 innings, giving up the one unearned run and striking out two Patriots on 61 pitches.

“There were times when I was kind of rushing things instead of just staying within myself and staying balanced,” said Stafford, who also walked four batters.

Texas (25-8) went with Nathan Thornhill (1-0) out of the bullpen in relief of Stafford, and the freshman went 2.1 innings, giving up just one hit and allowing two strikeouts, giving him the first win of his career.

With two outs in the fourth inning, Kevin Lusson delivered the go-ahead run for the Longhorns, knocking in Lucas Kephart with a double down the right-field line.

“I knew Dallas Baptist’s pitcher [Jared Stafford] wasn’t throwing fastballs and that he was just trying to get me with off-speed stuff, so I was looking for that,” Lusson said. “He threw me a slider, and I just turned on it.”

It was a big hit for the junior catcher, who has struggled through the season with a .171 batting average.

“Scoring runs with two outs made the difference tonight,” Garrido said. “It separated us from the other team.”

The Longhorns plated another run in the fifth inning, with Montalbano crossing home as Tant Shepherd grounded into a double play. Montalbano led Texas on Tuesday with a 2-4 performance and also contributed strong defense in center field, where he’s played while regular starter Cohl Walla rehabs a deep bone contusion he suffered two weeks ago.

“I felt good out there. I got some hits to drop,” Montalbano said. “When our team comes out here and gets things going early, it helps everybody else out. When we take good at-bats, it allows everybody else to ease up.”

Josh Urban took the mound in the sixth inning, pitching a perfect three innings before handing the ball to Corey Knebel, who picked up his ninth save of the season.

“The game was controlled by outstanding pitching, good defense and timely hitting,” Garrido said. “Those were the three elements that won us the game tonight.”

After four innings of missed opportunities and sheer bad luck — a few robbed hits, two long balls that fell short at the warning track and a strong wind that kept just about everything in play — Texas finally found a way to start a scoring rally.

Down 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth and with one out, freshman catcher Jacob Felts drilled a shot up the middle of the infield, where it looked like Baylor’s second baseman Steve DalPorto might have a play on it. DalPorto stretched out to his right and snatched the ball out of the air, but as he came back down and hit the turf, the ball, upon impact, slipped out of his glove. Felts was safe at first — the Longhorns had finally gotten a lucky break.

Felts would advance to second on a bunt hit by Brandon Loy — a bunt so perfectly placed between the third-base line and the pitcher’s mound that by the time Baylor’s pitcher Trent Blank could get his hands on it, Loy was already safe at first.
Paul Montalbano watched the third strike go by, giving Texas two outs. It looked like the Longhorns would again come up short.

But, as he’s done all season, Erich Weiss delivered in the clutch. On a 2-0 count, the freshman hit an RBI-single to center field, where it dropped just a few feet in front of the Bears’ Brooks Pinckard, who had already robbed Texas of a few hits — including a diving takeaway of what would have been a probable two-run double by Weiss in the third inning.

It was the one ball that Pinckard couldn’t get to, and it meant Texas was finally on the board.

“We were down on ourselves after falling behind 2-0, but we knew there was a lot of time left,” said Weiss, who leads the team with 21 RBIs. “I was frustrated after their center fielder robbed me in the third, so I was relieved to get that hit. We knew we weren’t going to lose; we just had to put some hits together.”

The Longhorns’ never-say-die attitudes helped them again in the seventh. Tant Shepherd, who, in the fourth inning, hit a ball to the 405-foot marker in center field, which was caught against the wall by Pinckard, got some revenge with a two-run double to left that scored Weiss and Montalbano.

“This is a crazy game,” Shepherd said. “You can hit a ball really hard, but it can still be an out. That’s how baseball works. It’s a game of inches.”

Shepherd’s double gave Texas a 4-2 lead. Two batters later, a sacrifice bunt by Jonathan Walsh brought Shepherd home for the fifth and final run of the game.
“Today showed the character this team has,” Shepherd said. “To come off a loss (7-6 Saturday against Baylor) and get a win today is awesome.”

Not one of the Longhorns’ runs came easily. As Loy said afterward, the game was an exercise in “making something out of nothing.”

Sometimes, as Texas learned Sunday, it’s just best to make your own luck.