Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What a Difference a Week Makes

After the UT-Austin win at Globe Life Ballpark, I was all ready to type up a post about how this was a game-changer for these young group of guys, the athletic department as a whole and the fan base. Not only was it a win against "big brother" (stupid a phase as there is since we are equal in the eyes of the system), though we have beaten the Longhorns 17 times before that, it was a great game with late inning heroics and a timely win in extra innings in front of a lively crowd.

The more amazing thing was the fact that there were as many or more Maverick fans as UT-Austin fans. The UTA fans also knew when to cheer at the right times. The major league team that normally occupies that stadium doesn't have that. I was even going to add that I was in downtown Dallas the following day wearing a UTA baseball shirt and a random suit-wearing guy asked if I was at the game yesterday in passing. Really just a cool vibe and great feeling about the program.

And then last week happened.

UTA followed the UT game with a super tough schedule, losing a game against Dallas Baptist, ranked in the top 25 in most polls. It was close until the last two innings. They then went on the road and split a two-game set against top-20 UC-Santa Barbara before finishing off with a victory over a one-win Dartmouth team. Four games against top-25 teams with two wins and a 3-2 record for the week had me feeling pretty good.

After playing Dartmouth, UTA would come to Clay Gould for a six-game homestand. A tough one, with Baylor, West Virginia and Georgia State, a surprising team near the top of the SBC standings, and TCU today. And they lost every one of those games last week. A freaking five-game losing streak all at home against competition weaker than the ranked teams UTA beat last week. The biggest thing to me wasn't that they lost, but how they lost.

Against Baylor, they left 8 runners on base, including four in scoring position with two of those a bases loaded with one out in the third inning before a double play ended the threat. That will become a common theme. Mavs dropped a 6-2 decision.

The next day West Virginia came to The Gould and the Mavericks would leave six runners stranded in scoring position and had the bases loaded with no outs in the fourth with no runs scored. At the end of the game they had a chance to tie it with a hit as runners were at second and third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Those were the tying runs and a hit is a necessity that just didn't happen.

The lack of timely hits would continue in the weekend series against Sun Belt foe Georgia State. In game 1, they left nine (NINE!) runners in scoring position including having the bases loaded with one out in the eighth in a 5-2  loss. On Saturday, they bases loaded with one out and no runs scored in the seventh on their way to stranding seven runners on second or third in a 6-4 loss in 11 innings. Finally, in the rubber match, UTA loaded the bases with one out in the third but came up empty. The fifth had another bases loaded situation before a double play ended it (they at least scored one prior to leaving 'em loaded in that inning) and the sixth had three on with two outs and they were left stranded, and a total of seven runners were stranded in scoring position in a 2-1, 10 inning loss.

Let's total this up. For the three-game Sun Belt set, UTA had the bases loaded four times without scoring a run and had a total of 23 runners left on second or third. For the week, UTA stranded 33 runners in scoring position. Six times the bases were loaded in five games that resulted in no runs. If we add the one time they were successful, the Mavericks had 'em loaded seven times that led to one run (ONE!) scored. WOW!!! That is futility at the plate. 21 runners on base, one scored. That's beyond bad. That's not youth, that's not coaching (though there were some shaky base-running calls though). That's just poor offense in a slump beyond measure.

The pitching wasn't much better, especially early on. Every game, UTA gave up at least a first inning run: three versus Baylor, one to West Virginia and one in all three games against Georgia State. The second inning wasn't much better. Against Baylor, they gave up three and two to West Virginia. They at least kept Georgia State off the board in that frame, but it didn't matter in the end.

But wait, there's more. UTA seldom led after a single inning last week. Five games, 48 innings, three innings (6%) saw a UTA lead. They basically played from behind ever inning. And remember, this is at home.With TCU, ranked as high as number two coming in tonight, it looks like UTA will have a 6-9 record at Clay Gould Ballpark to this point in the year.

After winning two games against ranked teams over a week ago and sporting a 12-9 record, UTA was gaining national attention. After last week, it is gone. A 3-2 or 4-1 week would have started garnering votes in top 25 polls.

I think that is what is the most frustrating thing. UTA fans, as I mentioned before, are fairly realistic. We don't have delusions of grandeur (like say the U about 30 miles north). With what happened the week prior, what happened the year before (more on that in a minute) and what we are historically (winning record against 93 teams, losing versus 44 and tied against 13), this kinda week just makes me want to put my head in the sand.

I'm reminded of what the prior athletic director told me when I was a student broadcaster many years ago. All teams were built to win conference championships. Given what we were at the time and the budget constraints we had and our financial history, it made total sense. Now, it would be an under-achieving goal, especially for baseball.

Here's why.

In the Southland Conference, most years saw one team make that sports NCAA tournament. The two exceptions were football, of which we obviously didn't compete, and baseball, though it wasn't a gimme most years. In the 43 years that the Southland Conference sent a representative to the NCAA tournament, 32 times only a solo team advanced, ten times two teams played (the last two years, without UTA the SLC has sent two) and in 2000, three teams participated.

When most other team sports were had to win the conference tournament to get in the NCAA postseason (volleyball, both basketballs, both tennis teams) baseball had an outside chance of sending the regular season champ to the dance if they didn't win the conference tourney.

With our budget and facilities at that point in the Southland, that was about the apex of our success. That was the level of our peer institutions and national success was going to be a very daunting challenge since half or more of our games were against them.

In the Sun Belt, the level of baseball competition is higher, plain and simple. The SBC is a younger conference than the SLC. The first time the SBC was eligible for the NCAA tourney was 1977. The SLC already had eight NCAA tournament appearances before the first SBC pitch was thrown. With that in mind, the Sun Belt has sent at least one representative to the baseball dance 34 times. That is the only SLC mark that is better than the SBC's. Compared to the SLC's ten, the Sun Belt has sent two teams 15 times. While the SLC has a high water mark of three teams once, the SBC has done it eight. The high mark for the SBC was four teams, and it has achieved that three times. Since 1969, the SLC has sent a total of 55 teams to the year-end tournament, an average of 1.27 per season. The SBC has sent 74, an average of 2.18 teams per year.

To achieve that kind of success, these teams are built for more than conference championships. They are built to beat any team they face. They have numerous Super Regional appearance and have made the College World Series. The SLC has never made either.

The bit of irony is that last year, UTA did really well in the conference, but very poorly outside. They finished second and advanced all the way to the SBC tournament championship game. They earned a couple of top-25 wins, but were 11-14 in non-conference play. Had they won three or four of those, they would have been an at-large team. Instead, they were competing just for a conference title.The Mavericks, quite simply were RPI busters and the reason the SBC sent only one team. For some salt in the wound, had they won the title game, the SBC would have sent two.

I think that ultimately is what irks me about last week's effort. The University is trying to up its athletic profile, evidence by the conference shuffling and facility investments. Last week felt like the same ole, same ole. It made it even more disappointing by the week that preceded it. We can compete at a high level. We just don't. We consistently find a way to be competitive without the success. That has to change.

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