With a 27-27 season where the team failed to make the Big 12 tournament due to a last-place finish in the conference in the rearview mirror, David Pierce’s squad is ready for 2020 to get going. The Longhorns open the fourth season of Pierce’s tenure Friday with the first of three games with Rice at Houston’s Reckling Park.
Texas will give the ball to 2019 second-team All-Big 12 pick Bryce Elder (2-4, 2.93) in the opener. The Longhorns and the Owls will get things going Friday at 7 p.m. followed by a 5 p.m. start Saturday with the series finale coming at 1 p.m. Sunday.
“We’re ready,” Pierce said Thursday about taking his team on the road to open the season. “This is what you work for and we’re excited to be going to Rice to open up. Should have good weather, should have pretty good crowds, so it’s a great test for us to open up on the road.”
Pierce met with the media for roughly 15 minutes on the eve of the opener, discussing everything from the weekend rotation to injury updates to who the Longhorns need to have an eye out for when taking on Rice.
On how Rice will challenge Texas: “I think they have some veterans in the infield with (third baseman Braden) Comeaux, (shortstop Trei) Cruz and (second baseman) Edwards and then (Justin) Collins behind the plate. I think that’s their nucleus. (Bradley) Gneiting is probably their best all-around player outside of Cruz and then they’ve got some JC guys that have a little power. (Alex) Deleon will open up Friday night — he’s a JC arm — and then (Blake) Brogdon is their Saturday guy. I don’t really know other than I think they’re going to be very competitive, it’s opening day and everybody’s going to have a ton of confidence. When you start the season in you’re 0-0, everybody knows they have [an] opportunity and they’re excited about the season. I expect them to be ready to play.”
On what kind of threat Trei Cruz (the son of Rice legend Jose Cruz Jr.) poses: “Well, I mean, he’s a potential first/second-rounder. He’s got a great body, he’s got great power, he hits from both sides. I think he’s improved his defense as well. He’s got arm strength, but it really looks like he’s improved his defense as well. And he’s going to be a threat in the middle of their order.”
On why Elder, Ty Madden (4-1, 4.30 ERA in 2019) and Coy Cobb (1-3, 3.45) make up the weekend rotation: “They’ve earned it. You go Elder on Friday night, Ty has been as good as anybody else all fall and early spring and Coy’s last couple of outings after coming out of the fall where we shut him down has been really sharp. Even when he hasn’t been as sharp, he’s pitched and he’s got weekend experience. Those three guys will toe the rubber force and I like our chances with all three of them.”
On if the rotation is set in stone: “It’s always open for competition. I just think that those three guys who’ve earned the right to start and they have the experience, but they’re not in there just because they have experience. I expect (Kolby) Kubichek, I expect (Pete) Hansen, I expect (Cole) Quintanilla to push them and really strive to be in one of those roles.”
On the growth shown in the offseason by Kam Fields: “The one thing that we’ve noticed is he’s really gotten into a more natural slot lot for him. When he gets excited and tries to amp up he starts trying to elevate his arm path or slot and I think he’s really settling into that slot, which has given him comfort. On top of that, he’s just another kid that has been there before and this is the first year you can say that with him. Even as a sophomore last year, I didn’t really feel like he had the experience to go into crucial situations, so he had to learn through that. His stuff is right. Sometimes his stuff has so much movement that he’s got to understand it to know where to start and to make sure he’s throwing strikes with it.”
On Elder’s offseason: “Early in the fall, he worked on some things and towards the end of the fall started kind of going back to his bread and butter: slider, sinker. This spring, his last outing — he threw six innings with a 75-pitch max — and he pitched that game like he was in a Friday night opener. I mean, you could see it. Everything was prepped towards [Friday] night.”
On DJ Petrinsky’s early-season workload coming back from shoulder surgery: “I’m not going to catch him every day. He’ll catch Friday, I think (true freshman) Silas (Ardoin) will catch Ty Saturday. We’ve been setting that up. Then take a look at Sunday. Hopefully, he recovers and he’ll catch on Sunday.”
On if Petrinsky will fill the designated hitter role when he’s not catching: “Possible. We’ll see. I mean, if whoever’s in that DH is doing well, we may maintain it. We have a long season. I mean, we expect to play a lot of games and I talked to the kids yesterday: not everybody’s going to start, but everybody has a role. Everybody should strive to start, but you’ve got to play your role and I think that’s the difficult thing for our players, the first two to three weeks of just kind of fitting in and being a contributor without being a starter. All of our guys have been the best players on their high school team, so that’s a difficult role sometimes, but we’re going to utilize people and try to win every game we’re in.”
On who will be the designated hitter: “(True freshman Douglas) Hodo is going to start there. You’ve got (junior college transfer) Cam Williams who’s a switch hitter from both sides. He’s really good on both sides, especially right-handed. You can see (infielder) Lance Ford jump in there, so there’s options. Silas has been swinging the bat well. Probably one of the best surprises in the early spring swinging the bat has been (true freshman catcher) Peyton Powell. He’s starting to really look like the guy that we thought he was. He’s got a good swing, got a good eye, but now he’s getting a little confidence in there as well. We have really good options there and that’s what I think is such a key with Zach playing first: it’s given us the ability to match up in that DH.”
On what makes opening day special: “It’s the next one and it’s the best one because you can’t replace it. I mean, the only thing better than replacing opening day at Rice is opening day at the Disch. Opening day is just a special time. You work so hard for it, we practice so much for it, but I don’t want our players to go out and kind of freak out about it. I want them to grow from what we’ve been working on in the mental game and slow it down and play the game with joy and just go have fun competing.”
On what kind of leadership the Longhorns have: “We’ve got great leadership with Bryce Elder, Ty Madden and DJ is just a little bit calmer leader. (First baseman) Zach (Zubia) does it by actions. We’ve got two kids (second baseman Brenden Dixon and shortstop Trey Faltine) in the middle [who are] freshman [and] lead like upperclassmen, so it runs throughout our team and it’s contagious. When you start seeing a guy like (outfielder) Austin Todd, who’s been a guy that’s been very good at his job, now with expanding that role a little bit and (outfielder) Duke (Ellis) expanding. There’s such a great balance of youth with some guys that have played in Omaha. They’re right and they’re pulling for each other, so I really liked this team. We may come out of the gates and go 15-0, we may come out of the gates and struggle early, but I think this team is going to continue to get better no matter what.”
The wait is over. #HookEm pic.twitter.com/b2CY4BY0aJ
— Texas Baseball (@TexasBaseball) February 15, 2020
On how common it is for freshmen like Dixon and Faltine to lead: “Not very. Especially two kids in the middle. I can’t think of a time where — we had David (Hamilton) and Ryan (Reynolds) at short and third — the last time the University of Texas had two starters in the middle of the field that were freshmen. I don’t think we put a limit to leadership on age because our guys are with us if they’re really good, three years. We have a short window, so we want to expedite that. As well as their skill play, we want to expedite them growing up and if they have leadership qualities we want them to use them and they’re doing a great job with that. Some of it is just that they’re loud and that’s fun. They’ve got personality.”
On if anyone is still talking about last season: “Other than you, nobody’s brought it up. Actually, we flipped the page. I was messing with Austin Todd about the 2017 play in Long Beach when Reynolds saved on that misplay in left field. He said, ‘Coach, I thought we were past all of that? Last year in the previous years.’ I said ‘that’s a highlight reel. That thing is going to always be there. But ’19, we’re past it.”
On who has improved throughout the preseason: “I mentioned a little bit about Peyton Powell. (Junior college transfer) Murphy Stehly is a kid, that has really, when you watch him day one, you say ‘well, he’s OK. You watch the next day — he’s very, very consistent. I wouldn’t say he jumps off the page, but he just does a lot of things right and at the end of this spring he ended up being the leading hitter and we didn’t see that coming. I would definitely say he’s a surprise. Will Swope has been awesome in the bullpen. I mean, all he does is pound the zone. He’s becoming reliable. We’ll see how he does it against outside competition, but he’s been a very reliable arm out of the bullpen.”
Now, he’ll wear No. 14 to honor him. #HookEm #ForeverPirates pic.twitter.com/AwAaiRlzrY
— Texas Baseball (@TexasBaseball) February 4, 2020
On Swope giving jersey No. 14 to Stehly to honor his junior college coach, John Altobelli, who passed away in the helicopter crash that claimed the life NBA legend Kobe Bryant and seven others: “I think it’s cool. I think it means the world to him. John was a special guy and a special guy to Murph. He touched a lot of people through baseball and Murph was definitely one of them. I think he’s very appreciative of having that opportunity and I know he’ll wear it with pride. I talked to Will because he wasn’t sure that John wore 14. I said, ‘would it be cool if you did that?’ He said ‘I would love to. I’d be honored to do it.’ We kind of set it up for Murph and he took it from there.”
On what Donny Diaz can provide out of the bullpen: “I know one thing: Donny was probably a kid going into this spring, probably the kid that you would look at and say, ‘I am the happiest for this kid to make this team’ because of this health issues. A lot like Josh Sawyer was when Josh came to me and said, ‘Coach, can I just try it one more year? See, if my body will hold up?’ And he worked for it and so has Donny. Donny is going to play a major role, I believe, because his arm strength is coming back and he really has a slow heartbeat. That’s critical in the back end.”
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On true freshman INF/P Andre Duplantier’s timetable to return from a broken hamate bone: “He threw an inning [Wednesday], so on the mound he’s ready to go. Progressing with the bat. Started swinging a day or two ago. Pretty light, but once everything kind of calluses and heals where it doesn’t reopen, he’s good to go. It’s tolerance after that, so he’s coming.”
On the expectations for true freshman LHP Pete Hansen: “He’s coming off [mononucleosis], so he’s had a setback, but he’s a strike-thrower and really commands three pitches. It may be a short start, but he’ll probably start Tuesday or Wednesday. I think he’s going to be an unbelievable kid for us this year and in the future. I think you’ll be impressed with (Sam) Walbridge as well and then (Austin) Wallace. Wallace has the ability to get outs. We want to have left-handers, but we won a national championship with one left-hander on our team in ’03, so I want the best guys and if they happen to be left-handed, great. I don’t want left-handers just because they’re left-handed. But I think those two, especially Hansen and Walbridge have a chance to really help this club this year.”