What in the Jungle was that?
A Texas loss, that’s what, a bad one. Really bad.
And a rough blow to the Longhorns’ psyche, not to mention their postseason ambitions.
Lopsided losses haven’t been all that common of late for a Texas team that had gone 14-3 since May 1. We hadn’t seen many meltdowns like this 13-7 beatdown by East Carolina in what has been a sterling season for the Longhorns, who caught fire in May, and the timing couldn’t have been worse for a team once ranked No. 1 in the country.
And this wasn’t so much a rumble in the Jungle — the self-proclaimed raucous baseball environment in Greenville, N.C. where someone among the record crowd of 5,723 even dumped water on Longhorns outfielder Doug Hodo III — as much as it was a bungle in the Jungle.
Texas’ pitching bungled it the worst.
As a staff, Texas pitchers allowed the fourth most runs of the season, topped only by a 16-12 road loss to Texas Tech and defeats by Air Force and Oklahoma State in which each put up 14 runs.
The lack of quality pitching depth might well be the undoing of this team and the biggest reason the ninth-seeded Longhorns were forced to go on the road since they aren't one of the national top eight seeds. Now they're in danger of not reaching the College World Series after a Final Four finish a year ago.
The loss of expected Sunday starter Tanner Witt to season-ending injury in February and the ineffectiveness of No. 2 starter Tristan Stevens for the bulk of the year put inordinate stress on Texas' pitching staff. And it threatened to unravel entirely with the decline of expected closer Aaron Nixon and the lack of a dependable arm in the ninth.
All that spelled a wild scramble for reliable arms, and it wasn’t until midseason and later that sophomore lefty Lucas Gordon emerged as an outstanding No. 2 starter behind Pete Hansen, and Stevens contributed with several good stints in long relief.
The staff seemed to stabilize late, especially in an Austin Regional that Texas swept, but the bullpen wasn’t asked to come up large in stressful situations, given the Longhorns’ prolific offense that plated 21 runs in two wins over Air Force.
So, Lucas Gordon, you got nine good innings in you? David Pierce had better pray for a minimum of six if not seven because there’s not a ton of faith in Texas’ relievers.
To exactly no one’s surprise, the biggest culprit was the bullpen Friday afternoon. ECU bashed the Longhorns for 15 hits, 10 of those over 22 at-bats with runners on. The Pirates were 8-for-16 with runners in scoring position.
The Longhorns’ Achilles heel showed up once again as it has for much of the season and proved costly despite a strong showing from the Texas bats in the form of four home runs. You hit four out of the ballpark, you’re supposed to win.
That wasn’t the case, and Texas now has to twice beat ECU, which is playing its best baseball of the season with 21 victories in its last 22 games.
As has happened a lot during a season that left Texas as the fifth-place team in the nine-team Big 12, the relievers offered no relief.
Not that starter Pete Hansen was on his A game. Maybe not even his C game.
The first four ECU batters of the game reached base, and three of them scored before the Longhorns had barely gotten off the team bus.
And once the left-handed ace departed the contest after only four innings, the bullpen imploded. Over the final four at-bats by the home team, ECU ripped apart a parade of six pitchers out of the UT pen for seven runs.
It surprised when Pierce turned to Zane Morehouse first in relief since he’d lost his No. 3 starting role and hasn’t really shown shutdown stuff. He gave up a big home run on his first pitch in the fifth inning, and it only got worse from there.
Together, Longhorns relievers were tagged for eight hits and seven runs. They walked four batters, hit a fifth and threw a wild pitch.
Didn’t seem to matter who. None of them were effective, including Stevens, who will have to step up big-time if Texas hopes to advance to Omaha. Other than Morehouse, none of the pitchers threw more than 14 pitchers and weren’t overly taxed. But they were ineffective.
"They did a better job making pitches when they needed it, extending at-bats and playing good defense,” Pierce said.
Even Texas’ dynamic offense, which included two home runs by Murphy Stehly and one each from Ivan Melendez and Douglas Hodo III, couldn’t keep it close.
Every time Texas’ offense brought the visitors close, ECU would extended its lead with regularity.
When Texas scored a run in the top of the seventh on Hodo’s solo shot of American Athletic Conference pitcher of the year Carter Spivey, ECU matched it in the bottom of the inning.
When the Horns plated a pair in the top of the eighth on back-to-back homers by Melendez and Stehly, the Pirates more than one-upped them with five in the bottom of the inning.
And crooked innings were often the death of this team in critical spots like a 10-run outburst in the finale of a home sweep by Oklahoma State and an eight-run rally by Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.
That said, write this team off at your own risk.
Not when Pierce has the best slugger in school history and almost best slugger 2.0 batting right after him in the lineup. Melendez and Stehly represent the biggest power tandem in all of college baseball.
Not many teams can match the prowess of Melendez and Stehly, who have combined to hit 50 home runs this season alone.
But it all went for naught because Hansen had an atypical day and may be wearing down after his second subpar outing, and because the bullpen remains a big liability.
Someone, anyone had better come to the rescue soon.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas pitching craters in critical Game 1 super regional loss at ECU