Over the next two weekends, Texas‘ hold on first place will be strongly tested with series against the two teams that immediately follow the Longhorns in the league standings. It all begins this weekend, which is why our Big 12 baseball weekend preview focuses on the in-state battle between Texas and TCU in Austin.
Texas, ranked No. 4 in the country this week by Collegiate Baseball, appears to be back in familiar territory, at or near the top in the Big 12 standings, after a dreadful off-year last season in which the Longhorns found themselves at the very bottom of the conference with a highly unusual 7-17 league record.
The Longhorns have posted back-to-back series sweeps this month in Big 12 play en route to a 9-3 conference record. The last time Texas achieved back-to-back series sweeps in the conference was in 2010, when the Horns did it against five consecutive Big 12 opponents.
This will be a tough series for TCU (23-13, 7-5), two games back of Texas in the league standings. Not only is this series in Austin, where Texas is 17-5 this season, but the Horned Frogs are going up against arguably one of the hottest teams in the country. The Longhorns have won seven consecutive Big 12 games, nine of their last 10 and 15 of the last 17.
Texas has combined great pitching and a balanced offense, which is the fundamental formula for picking up a lot of wins. In the last 17 games, the Longhorns are averaging almost seven runs per game, and for the season they are allowing just 2.5 runs per contest. Outfielder Mark Payton is the central figure in the Texas offense this year. Payton is batting .348, sixth best in the conference, and leads the league with a .477 on-base percentage.
The Texas starting weekend rotation of Parker French, Dillon Peters and Nathan Thornhill has a collective ERA 1.89, which is the fourth best in the nation among weekend starters. Their combined won-lost record is 15-4, led by Thornhill, who is 6-0 in seven starts in 2014.
Six of the Longhorns 30 victories this season have been by shutout. Only TCU in the Big 12 has done better, with seven shutouts this season.
TCU and Texas have met 25 times since they were longtime foes in the Southwest Conference. The Longhorns have won 15 of the 25 games. TCU won the series a year ago in Ft. Worth, taking two of the three games.
The Horned Frogs are coming off a season-high 13-run performance earlier this week against Houston Baptist. The Frogs have also been on a hot streak recently, winning eight of their nine games in the month of April. Under head coach Jim Schlossnagle, TCU is 140-46 all-time in the month of April.
A big reason for the Horned Frogs hot streak in the current month is the hitting of sophomore outfielder Boomer White, who owns a league-best batting average of .378. He has hit safely in 32 of 36 games this year. Teammate Derek Odell also has been on an offensive terror of late. The junior third baseman had a 10-game hitting streak come to an end on Tuesday, but over those 10 games Odell went 16-for-33 and raised his batting average 83 points to .336.
It is true that the Horned Frogs will be facing a trio of stingy starting pitchers from Texas, But TCU has a strong pitching staff of its own. The Frogs’ six starting pitchers this season have combined for a highly respectable 2.61 ERA. TCU’s staff strikeout/base-on-balls ratio of 3.9 is the second best in the nation this season, and its 9.1 strikeouts per game as a staff is fifth best in college baseball.
The Horned Frogs also have a pretty good closer in Riley Ferrell, who is six-of-seven in save opportunities this season.
TCU’s probable Friday and Saturday starters (Brandon Finnegan and Preston Morrison) have ERAs of 1.76 and 1.80, respectively, through all games this year.
Any way you look at it, the weekend series between the Longhorns and Horned Frogs will be a battle royal. Because it is being played on Texas’ home diamond, I see the Longhorns winning two of the three games. If that comes to pass, Texas will open up a three-game advantage over TCU in the standings.
Other conference games this weekend (with my predication on which team will prevail):
It will be a good time for the home teams this Easter weekend.
West Virginia @ Oklahoma (Thursday through Saturday) – OU will win two of three
Baylor @ Kansas State (Thursday-Saturday) – Kansas State will catch a gust of wind and sweep the Bears
Kansas @ No. 13 Oklahoma State (Friday-Sunday) - Jayhawks will salvage one of the three games