NCAA Regional: #3 UCLA Bruins (30-25) vs. #2 Texas Longhorns (37-22)
WHEN: Friday, June 2 — 4:00 PM PT
WHERE: Blair Field; Long Beach, CA
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN2
Few college baseball programs are as storied as the Texas Longhorns, so seeing them in a regional just sort of makes sense. In 2017, especially, UT earned their keep: They racked up 27 wins at home and finished the regular season ranked 18th in RPI which, even by Big 12 standards (they ranked #1 among conferences in this regard), is a significant accomplishment.
And in the first year of the David Pierce era, emerging from this tough regional could represent the first steps to a renaissance on the diamond in Austin. To get to know more about San Diego State’s potential foe, we reached out to our friends at Burnt Orange Nation and got in touch with Jack Keyes, who’s written about UT baseball all season.
Mountain West Connection: 2017 marked the first year of manager David Pierce's tenure, and I imagine it must have been strange for many Longhorns fans to see someone other than Augie Garrido at the helm. Garrido's 2016 was his first losing campaign since 1998, however, so how did Pierce's first season stack up with your initial expectations?
Jack Keyes: Augie had actually been sputtering for a while. In 2013, the 'Horns came in last place in the Big 12 and missed the NCAA tournament. The 'Horns overachieved after a mediocre season in 2014 and made it the College World Series, but they needed to win the conference tournament just to get into the big dance in 2015. And then of course there was 2016, when Texas went 25-32. So fans were frustrated, and hopeful that David Pierce could help Texas return to its former grace.
I think Pierce has pretty much exactly met expectations. In the beginning of the year I said that I just wanted Texas to make the tournament, while other Texas writers said they wanted the 'Horns to be in the discussion for hosting a regional (and they were). This team is far from complete or well-rounded, but they have enough talent to be a dangerous team. Year two next season will be big for Pierce, and it will be interesting to see if his recruits down the line can fill the voids on the roster.
MWC: I feel compelled to ask about Kacy Clemens, not only because he's the son of Roger Clemens but because he led UT in each of the triple slash categories (.319/.428/.549). What has his continued emergence meant for the Longhorns lineup?
Keyes: Kacy Clemens quickly emerged as a fan favorite his junior year when he started wearing prescription glasses and suddenly went from a sub-par hitter to a Longhorn legend. Now, as a senior, he's the one guy fans can rely on to consistently have good at-bats. Without him, Texas would be hitting .249 as a team this year (269th in the nation). He's been crucial to Texas' success this year in more ways than just his hitting -- he is deceivingly speedy (he is 10-11 in stolen base attempts), he is an excellent defensive first baseman, and he is a natural leader.
MWC: What stands out to you about the pair of pitchers -- Nolan Kingham and Morgan Cooper -- who represented UT on the all-Big 12 first team? Who is San Diego State most likely to see in the winner's or loser's bracket?
Keyes: If Texas plays San Diego State in game two, then the Aztecs will likely see Morgan Cooper. Cooper in my opinion is the more reliable of the Longhorns' two studs, but they are obviously both incredible. Cooper wasn't formerly known as a strikeout pitcher per se, but this year he has been racking up K's (103 in 81 1⁄3 innings). Couple that with his amazing command and you have one of the best college pitchers in baseball, who will likely be a second round draft pick this year.
MWC: I couldn't help but notice that this Longhorns squad has some clearly defined strengths and weaknesses: First in Big 12 league play in team ERA and fielding percentage; last in team batting average, runs scored. Second in walks allowed per nine innings, but last in strikeouts per nine. Why (or why not) do you think UT is simply playing with house money at this point, and what's the most likely result for the Longhorns in Long Beach?
Keyes: I think these weaknesses you mentioned are why Texas fans can't assume that the 'Horns will get out of the Long Beach regional. The 'Horns' pitching depth and defense could get them there, but not being able to manufacture runs consistently isn't a recipe for success. I think at the least Texas should get to the regional final. Making the Super Regional is within the realm of possibility, but Omaha would definitely be a (pleasant) surprise for me.