AUSTIN (AP) – Augie Garrido says, maybe only half-jokingly, that he needs to be fitted for a miner’s cap the way the baseball season is going for Texas.
“It’s dark down here where I’m at,” he said.
The Longhorns are tied for last in the Big 12, unfamiliar territory for a program that has made a record 34 College World Series appearances and is headed by the coach with the most wins in Division I history. No Texas baseball team has finished at the bottom of its league since 1956.
The struggle is excruciating, and not just because the Longhorns are losing so many close games. The annual expectation is to end the season in Omaha, Neb., at the CWS — something the Longhorns have done seven times since 2000. Each time they make it, Garrido unfailingly says it’s as much a relief as an accomplishment.
The CWS is a long shot this year. With a month left in the regular season, the Longhorns have a lot of work to do just to avoid missing the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time since 1997-98.
They’ve lost seven straight Big 12 series going back to last season as they head into a three-game set against West Virginia. They’re 20-15 overall after Tuesday’s 6-1 non-conference win over Texas-Pan American, but just 4-8 in the Big 12.
Of their 35 games, 23 have been decided by two runs or less. They’re 9-7 in one-run games.
“They’ve lost some close games, and they probably don’t have the talent top to bottom that you would normally have at Texas,” said Stanford coach Mark Marquess, whose team has played a series against the Longhorns every season since 1998 and swept their three games last month.
The pitching has more than held up its end, but the defense has been spotty and the Longhorns have been unable to get timely hitting.
The Longhorns are averaging just 2.8 runs in Big 12 games, well below the 5.1 of last season. They’re batting .246 in conference games and just .164 with runners in scoring position.
The bright spots have been right fielder Mark Payton, who’s batting .400 and is bidding to become Texas’ first player to end the season at that hallowed mark since 2002, and third baseman Erich Weiss, who’s batting .388 in Big 12 games.
Take Payton and Weiss out of the mix, though, and the Longhorns’ overall average drops 27 points to .239.
Top starting pitchers Parker French (3-2), Dillon Peters (3-2) and Nathan Thornhill (2-4) all have ERAs of 2.77 or better, and the staff started the week 17th nationally at 2.68. Star closer Corey Knebel has seven saves and 35 for his career, six behind the school record set by Huston Street from 2002-04. But Knebel didn’t help matters last weekend when he was sent back to Austin during the series at Kansas because of a violation of team rules. Garrido reinstated him Monday.
Defensive problems revealed themselves in a big way in the sixth inning of Sunday’s 4-3 loss.
The Jayhawks’ Tucker Tharp reached after Ty Marlow dropped second baseman Brooks Marlow’s short flip on what should have been an easy out at first. The next batter bunted, and catcher Jacob Felts tried to get the lead runner at second. But Felts’ low throw went into center field and Tharp ended up on third. The next batter hit a ball at shortstop C.J. Hinojosa, who bobbled it and had to settle for getting the runner at second instead of trying to throw home to get Tharp, who scored the winning run.
“So the same guy was out three times,” Garrido said, “but scored a run.”
Though Hinojosa has committed 10 errors, most of any shortstop in the Big 12, Garrido said the infield has generally excelled.
“That’s what is probably the most gut-wrenching and heart-breaking for everyone on the team,” Garrido said. “We can look out on the field and know that we are so close to being a championship-type team, and at the same time we’re so far away from that in reality.”
Texas had chances to tie after falling behind in that last game against Kansas, but a runner was thrown out at home to end the seventh inning, and the Longhorns couldn’t score after having a runner at second base with one in both the eighth and ninth.
“We’ve mastered the art of losing,” said Garrido, who said his team’s “confidence factor is not overcoming the fear factor.”
Stanford’s Marquess said Texas is no different from other elite programs that have struggled. He pointed out that everyone in college baseball was in shock when LSU didn’t make the NCAA tournament in 2011, two years after winning the national championship. Florida, coming off three straight CWS appearances, is just over .500. Same with Miami, which once was a CWS regular but hasn’t been to Omaha since 2008.
“It’s not unique to Texas. It’s just a different time,” Marquess said. “And the problem is the expectation level for those elite programs and their fans is unrealistic, to be honest. It can’t be like it used to be. You can’t dominate. There are no guaranteed wins anymore.”
College baseball’s parity and the struggles of his Longhorns haven’t diminished the 74-year-old Garrido’s enthusiasm for his job. He hears the grumbling of the fans, which he said is to be expected in a program that has a passionate following.
His contract runs through 2015, and he’s paid $985,000 a year. He has no plans to retire, though he acknowledges he serves at the administration’s pleasure.
“I don’t have a lot of hobbies. I don’t have other things I like to do,” he said. “I’m totally all in with this.”
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