This Friday night, Texas baseball will return to action for the first time since the 2017 season ended in Long Beach with a loss in the regional final. On Wednesday, head coach David Pierce met with the media to discuss the upcoming 2018 season.
Pierce emphasized the excitement he felt about heading into opening day after months of preparation throughout fall practices and into the spring.
“The beauty about coaching is it’s a new year, every year. You got a new group. The excitement of opening day is the best, it doesn’t matter if you are opening up against Our Lady of the Foul Line or Louisiana Lafayette, it’s opening day,” Pierce said.
The Longhorns will have a lot of new faces on the field after losing 11 players to the MLB draft. The coaching staff hit the junior college ranks hard trying to fill holes in the roster. Infielder Masen Hibbeler, catcher D.J Petrinsky and outfielder Duke Ellis are all junior college transfers who will fill key roles for the 2018 squad.
“(D.J) and Michael (McCann) are going to share some time, but right now I would give D.J the nod. He really brings a calmness to him,” Pierce said. “Masen Hibbeler is one of our best hitters. Sometimes you worry about numbers from a kid coming out of junior college, and he hit .490 at Odessa, but does that translate to the type of pitching we face day in and day out. He’s got a chance to hit in the 2-4 hole for us. Then you look at a kid like Duke Ellis and Kamron Fields, now Kamron isn’t a JUCO kid, but we did to make sure we can solidify CF, and Duke can really go get it defensively”
In terms of a starting lineup, Pierce said it would be Kody Clemens at 3B, David Hamilton at SS, Hibbeler at 2B, Ryan Reynolds at 1B and D.J Petrinsky behind the plate. In the outfield, Tate Shaw will start in LF, Ellis in CF and Austin Todd in RF.
Hamilton will enter his sophomore season after starting all but 1 game as a freshman. Pierce praised his starting SS and talked about the improvements he has made in his game.
“He won the job last year somewhat by default,” Pierce said. “He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached. When you can go out everyday and play the type of defense he did while struggling offensively, it tells you what kind of mental toughness he has. So now his body is a little stronger and he’s more confident in his swing, but he hasn’t lost his defense.”
On the mound, Texas has already locked in their weekend rotation of Nolan Kingham, Chase Shugart and Blair Henley. In the bullpen, Texas will rely on Josh Sawyer, Andy McGuire and Bryce Verplank to help get the ball to closer Beau Ridgeway. In addition to the late inning bullpen arms, Pierce and pitching coach Phil Haig will also have the luxury deploying talented newcomers Bryce Elder and Matteo Bocchi.
“(Elder) throws as good of a cutter as I’ve seen, especially at his age. He’s a four pitch mix guy,” Pierce said. “I’m really impressed with Matteo Bocchi. When he got here, he had like 7 pitches and he hadn’t mastered any of them. We’ve narrowed him down to 3 pitches and his slider has really, really improved. He’s one of the few guys who knows a true split-finger. The key for him is being able to throw his fastball and locate his spots.”
The Longhorns will face a tough task opening weekend as they welcome Louisiana Lafayette, a team that beat Texas 8-1 in a midweek game last season.
“They’re good. Coach Robichaux does a great job with them,” Pierce said. They do a great job on the mound. They’ve lost a few of their everyday guys, but they got a very good approach. They will put the ball in play with their speed guys, and their power guys got a chance to drive it out. It is what we are preparing for and I think it is going to be a good series.”
Following the series with the Rajun Cajuns, Texas will still have tough non-conference series matchups against LSU and Stanford, with tough midweek games against Arkansas sandwiched in between. Although the non-conference schedule is difficult, Pierce made a point in letting his players know they can not get caught up on reaching goals or the bigger picture, instead they must focus on the task at hand. The head coach spent time in the offseason sitting down with his players to discuss their goals for the season, and what their collective mission was.
“I want every guy to out and perform his job, and if we do that as a unit, it gives us the best chance to win,” Pierce said. There are probably 100 teams in the country that are saying our goal today is to start the road to Omaha, that is a given. Everybody in the country that has a level of talent is thinking that. How do we get there? And what are our sacrifices to get there? That has been our mission.”
Texas will kick the 2018 season at home on Friday, first pitch will be at 6:30. The series will wrap up Saturday and Sunday, with first pitch at 2:30 and 1:00, respectively. Follow along here at Hornsports.com and on Twitter (@HornSports) for live updates.