Baseball returns to Missouri with different outlook
May 20, 2010
Jason Womack, Texas Media Relations
The Texas Longhorns travel to Missouri for the first time since 2008 this weekend to face the Tigers in a regular season ending showdown, and the differences between then and now have are remarkable.
UT returns to Missouri with a No. 2 ranking, and the Longhorns already claimed the 2010 Big 12 regular season title. The Longhorns’ pitching staff has grown both mentally and physically in the past two years, and is now teeming with experience. Cole Green, Brandon Workman, Chance Ruffin and Stayton Thomas -- all freshmen during the last trip to Columbia -- now make up the core group of pitchers.
This return trip north brings back memories of a team still searching for itself. When the Longhorns last visited Missouri’s Taylor Stadium, they entered the weekend with a lack of bullpen experience, and had yet to find a solid leader.
The Tigers, ranked No. 8 at the time, were anchored by a solid staff on the mound, including standout Aaron Crow, who entered the game with a 42.2 scoreless inning streak. In the opening game of the series, the Longhorns put an abrupt end to Crow’s streak by tallying nine runs in the first two innings.
However, the game quickly turned into a disaster as the Tigers mounted an offensive rally that the Longhorns couldn’t answer. After nine innings and six Texas pitching changes, the Tigers had won 31-12, an opposing team run total that tops the UT history books as the most runs allowed by a Texas team.
Texas pitcher Cole Green remembers the amazement he felt as the game progressed through the night.
“We threw everyone we had out there, and nothing worked,” Green says. “It was just a weird deal -- the craziest baseball game I have ever seen.”
In a lighthearted effort to exorcise the demons affecting them that night, members of the team, including Workman, wrote the final score on a baseball and buried it in the visiting team dugout. The ploy had no effect that Saturday though, as the Longhorns fell behind 7-1 in the fourth and never recovered, losing 13-2.
While many players would have simply given up, Ruffin had other plans in mind. That Sunday, as the team arrived at the stadium for the final game, he stood at the front of the bus as a leader, and asked them to forget what had transpired and join him in giving his all on the field.
“I reminded them that day that we were a team, and when things go wrong you don’t make excuses,” Ruffin says. “I told them when things go wrong you pick up your teammates, because they’re the ones that have been working hard along with you all year.”
The Longhorns responded to this new leadership by posting nine runs against the Tigers. Ruffin pitched five innings that day, holding the Tigers to two runs on four hits. Green, still recovering from his part in the Friday night debacle, came in to pitch four innings of scoreless relief, giving the Longhorns a 9-2 victory and allowing them to return to Austin without being swept.
“I just tried to throw to the mitt, let my defense work and tried to get the outs,” Green says. “We just tried to forget about the two days before that.”
Now, two years removed from the debacle in Columbia, the experience of that weekend has helped the veteran pitching squad to progress both physically and mentally through leadership and experince.
“As far as pitching goes, I think we’ve progressed a lot,” Thomas says. “We know to attack the strike zone more and not pitch around people. We’re more aggressive than we were back then, and I think we’ve come a long way since that game.”
The progression is clearly evident on paper. Currently, the four experienced hurlers have achieved a combined record of 33-4 and an average ERA of 2.45, compared with a record of 18-12 and an average ERA of 4.03 in 2008.
“I think I’ve gotten better in every aspect of pitching since then,” Workman says. “Mentally I’m a lot better. I’m more focused, and I stay positive on the mound when things get rough.”
Perhaps the most helpful aspect of today’s pitching staff is a immense feeling of confidence, brought on by the outstanding performances of the bullpen, led by Ruffin, which has held opposing teams to a batting average of .224.
“I think we have a lot of confidence, and when things go wrong we say it’s going to be alright, because our bullpen is so good,” Workman says. “It gives you a lot of confidence to know that when things do go wrong out there, we can still bring it together and get a win as a team.”
Since his pregame speech that Sunday in 2008, Ruffin is still viewed as the team's leader, but prefers to lead the team by example, not with words.
“I don’t try to talk to people and force them to do things that they don’t want to do,” Ruffin says. “I try to inspire the other guys by the way that I play. I just try to do the right things.”