Houston Overcomes All Odds To Shine
HOUSTON — University of Houston head coach Todd Whitting and his program are having a season to remember, and not all for the most positive reasons.
As the Cougars were readying for the 2015 campaign, there was a great deal of excitement surrounding the program. The Cougars had reached the Austin Super Regional last season, they returned a lot of those key pieces, and the College World Series was no longer some pipe dream for Whitting and UH — it was the expectation.
Back in February, it was easy to tell the Cougars were supposed to have a big year. At UH’s preseason baseball banquet, a record number of fans, boosters and alums attended the event, and as Whitting read off his team’s preseason ranking on a slide show, some ooh’s and aah’s filled the room.
There had never been this much buzz surrounding the University of Houston on the baseball diamond, and managing expectations internally would be one of the most important jobs of the season by Whitting and his coaching staff.
But while the Cougars currently appear to be headed the right direction, staring at a possible American Athletic Conference regular-season title, this season has gone by anything but the script, the ups and downs of this spring potentially giving the Cougars the toughness they need to not only get to the postseason, but also flirt with a trip to the CWS. Yes, that goal is still within reach.
As it stands right now, the Cougars are 34-16 overall, 12-7 in the AAC with a one-game lead over East Carolina and South Florida for first place. UH also has an RPI of 16 and could get into serious hosting discussion by winning the conference crown.
Given what UH has been through already this season, those little but important factoids are somewhat astonishing.
“No. No I didn’t,” Whitting said when asked if he thought his team would be in this good of shape right now. “I don’t know many programs that could take the hits that we did from a personnel standpoint, and still win.
“It’s not easy to overcome, but every season, you go into the year not knowing exactly what you have,” he continued. “We took some direct hits, and we were pretty much blindsided by some of the setbacks that we had, particularly in the way of injuries. Suddenly, we had a lot of position changes, role changes and things like that, and it was tough to manage. We were reeling there for a while and there were a lot of grenades going off around us with those things and with trying to manage new guys.”
Plenty of teams in college baseball this spring have been able to manage some setbacks. Top-five Texas A&M, for instance, entered the season without No. 1 starting pitcher Tyler Stubblefield, and his replacement, lefthander A.J. Minter, was lost for the season because of an arm injury. But the Aggies have withstood those losses to have an incredible season. The same goes for College of Charleston, which lost stud sophomore righthander Bailey Ober for the season before the season-opening series at South Carolina. Charleston, in turn, has gotten a boost from two-way player Brandon Glazer, whose pitch-to-contact approach has worked to near perfection.
The Aggies and Charleston have gone much of the season knowing what their respective situations were, and were able to manage them accordingly. But Houston’s situation is vastly different, and turning the tide in a positive direction shouldn’t be understated.
Looking at Houston’s projected lineup and rotation going into the season, righthanders Aaron Garza and Jake Lemoine, in order, were expected to lead the weekend rotation, and hard-nosed Bubba Maxwell was supposed to help anchor the pitching staff. Garza and Lemoine both are dealing with injury issues and the two have been virtual non-factors for quite some time. Lemoine, Whitting says, could return to pitch some in the postseason, but that has yet to be determined. But the Cougars were supposed to navigate a rigorous AAC schedule without their No. 1 and No. 2 weekend starters and a high quality reliever.
Those weren’t all the setbacks, either. The Cougars had outfielder Michael Pyeatt and Connor Hollis slated to be in the everyday lineup. Hollis was a real bright spot for UH last season, hitting .321 and being a consistent force, while Pyeatt, a veteran, was expected to have a productive spring.
Hollis and Pyeatt, because of season-ending injuries, have a combined six at-bats this season.
“You look at our lineup, and for much of the season, we’ve just been trying to play through all of his and just see where everyone fits,” Whitting said. “I thought coming into the season we were going to be really offensive because we have some good hitters on this team. I didn’t think we were going to be bludgeoning anyone to death, but I felt like we could have good team offense.”
Things haven’t been easy for the UH offense. It’s been an upward and downward trend at times, and the Cougars entered the series opener against East Carolina with a .270 overall batting average, .264 mark in the AAC. But they showed promise in a 10-1 domination of the Pirates. Hard-hitting first baseman Chris Iriart continues to hit at a torrid pace and showed big-time pop, shortstop Connor Wong, who has struggled at times this season, hit a two-run home run, veteran second baseman Josh Vidales chipped in a two-hit performance and athletic outfielder Corey Julks, who actually sits second on the team in batting average (.315), had three hits and an RBI to help lead the way.
The numbers might not suggest it, but this Houston lineup has the potential to be one pesky force in the postseason. The pitching staff, too, has a chance to surprise some people.
Kyle Dowdy, the Cougars’ No. 2 starting pitcher, has provided a big, but surprising boost. Dowdy previously came out of the bullpen, but was originally recruited as a starting pitcher. He’s made quite the impressive transition to that role. But it’s been the rise of sophomore righthander Andrew Lantrip that has helped UH the most as of late.
Lantrip, a lanky 6-foot-2, 175-pounder, was expected to be the No. 3 starting pitcher for the Cougars entering the season, but was forced to the ace role after Lemoine went down and Garza began to struggle on a consistent basis.
Lantrip had his hiccups earlier in the season. He allowed six runs in just 2.2 innings in late March against UCF. But he’s been a man on a mission since that point, racking up 42 strikeouts in his last four starts, including Friday night’s outing against ECU, where he struck out nine, walked two and allowed a run on eight hits in eight innings. He consistently sat 90-92 mph with his fastball and showed good feel for his changeup and breaking ball.
The talented sophomore righthander got into a jam in the first inning against ECU, as the first two Pirates hitters reached base. But he settled down and retired the side with a pair of huge strikeouts. He was terrific the rest of the way, providing an intriguing calming effect the Cougars have most definitely needed over the past month.
“Lantrip has really matured a lot over the past two seasons. He’s always had great stuff, but mentally it’s been a little up and down at times. He used to be a real high emotion guy, and wasn’t able to level that out much,” Whitting said. “No matter good or bad now, he’s able to move on to the next pitch.
“With any young pitcher, when you start having more success, you get more confidence,” he continued. “He’s throwing each of his pitches with a sense of program.”
Houston, with guys stepping up in a variety of roles, will be an interesting team to watch come postseason time, especially if it can find a way to host a regional.
It’s been a long, tiring, season for Whitting, his coaching staff and players. But sometimes setbacks bring out the best in everyone.
They’re finding that out … one step closer to a conference title.