Texas head coach Augie Garrido sat in the Longhorn clubhouse at Disch-Falk Field last Tuesday, fielding questions from the media, just a few minutes after his team had suffered a 7-2 loss at the hands of the Rice Owls.
“It’s definitely a learning experience,” Garrido said of his hitters’ inability to make contact. “Because it hasn’t happened to us before.”
Of course, Garrido would have rather been sitting there singing his team’s praises after a hard fought win. But his obvious unfamiliarity with this team’s inability to produce base runners and drive in runs was very telling of just how good his ball club has been this year.
Halfway through April, the Longhorns have already won 29 games, two more than they did all of last year. Texas has won 13 of its last 15 contests and is preparing for a nine-game home stand. Garrido’s team is on pace to finish the regular season with a record of 42-11.
If the Longhorns continue at that pace, they’ll finish the regular season with a higher winning percentage than the 2002 and 2005 national championship teams, which is fitting because this team might just be the best Garrido has ever coached at Texas.
Given that last season’s core of players was responsible for one of Texas’ worst seasons in program history, it’s hard to believe that those same core players are now leading Texas in one of its best seasons.
Nathan Thornhill, who passed up on the pros to return for his senior season, has led a Longhorn pitching staff that has been virtually untouchable most of the season. The Cedar Park native has posted a perfect 6-0 record on the season with an incredible 0.78 ERA and an impossible 0.91 WHIP.
Thornhill hasn’t been the only ace for Texas this season. Sophomore Travis Duke has yet to give up any runs in 14.1 relief innings and starters Dillon Peters and Parker French both have ERAs below 3.00. As a staff, the Longhorn pitchers have a miniscule 2.12 ERA and have surrendered an average of just 1.7 runs per game in Texas’ 29 victories.
Just as the Thornhill has led a resurgence among Texas’ pitchers, senior outfielder Mark Payton — who also turned down an opportunity to go pro — has led an even more improbable resurrection of Texas’ hitters, many of whom struggled mightily just a year ago.
Despite his current 76-game on-base streak, Payton’s numbers are actually slightly down from the absurd averages he put up last year. But his consistency has inspired a massive increase in production from a number of his teammates. Senior infielder Madison Carter’s batting average is up more than 100 points from last year while sophomore outfielder Ben Johnson’s slugging percentage has risen by almost 70 points.
Most of all, this year’s team has been able to win close games. In a small-ball system like Garrido’s, close games are the rule, not the exception, and this more experienced Longhorn team has proven it can handle the pressure. Texas is 9-2 in games decided by two runs or less, with the victories coming from a combination of clutch late-game hitting and lockdown pitching with the game on the line.
More than just an improvement over last year’s last-place team, the 2014 Longhorns look even better than the 2002 and 2005 team’s that won it all in Omaha.