It’s been a long few years since the Houston baseball program has been exciting. The days of Joe Davis and Connor Wong seem like a distant memory. To say that the past few seasons have been a disappointment would be an understatement.
After a slow start to the 2023 season, the Coogs finally seem to be hitting their stride right as conference play begins. After a dismal 5-11 start, including series losses to Cal, UTRGV, and a three-game sweep by Oklahoma, Houston has won 10 out of their last 13 games. This run included a sweep of Minnesota on the road and taking 2 of 3 from #8 ECU in the opening weekend of conference play.
One of the most significant question marks coming into the season was Houston’s virtually brand-new pitching staff. However, while there have been some growing pains, the Coogs are finally finding their rhythm.
Junior Josh Ekness leads the team in strikeouts with 31, with sophomore Cade Citelli (29) and German-born Freshman Paul Scmittz (28) following close behind.
The standout pitcher in recent weeks has been junior Justin Murray. Murray, the starting first baseman, has a 2-0 record, with three saves in 8 relief appearances. He’s posted a 1.42 ERA this season.
If this offense has to be described in one word, it’d be power. The Cougars have gone yard 34 times already this season. Third baseman Zack Arnold is leading the team with seven home runs, along with catcher Anthony Tulimero (6) and outfielder Cameron Nickens (5).
UH has dominated the base paths this season. They lead the conference in stolen bases with 52. The Coogs have only been caught stealing eight times yearly, the fifth best in the nation.
Down Goes ECU
In what head coach Todd Whitting called three of the best ball games he’s ever been part of, Houston opened conference play with a series win over nationally ranked #8 East Carolina.
Friday night was the most thrilling game of the series, with a brilliantly pitched game from both clubs. Houston’s Josh Eknis pitched 6.1 innings, giving up only six hits and four runs to the Pirates. ECU’s Trey Yesavage pitched six innings giving up two runs. Justin Murray was lights out in relief, giving up just two hits and no runs in 3.2 innings of work.
The Coogs went into the bottom of the 9th down 4-2. But, they got to work, and Brandon Uhse, pinch-hitting for Drew Bianco, hit into a sacrifice grounder to the shortstop, scoring Justin Murray from third.
Just when it seemed it was over, Malachi Lott, with two outs and two strikes on him, doubled to left field to bring Brad Burckel around from second for the tying run.
After a scoreless 10th inning from Justin Murray, the Coogs got to work quickly in the bottom of the tenth. Alex Lopez doubled to second in the first at-bat of the inning. Cameron Nickens promptly hit an RBI single to bring Lopez across the plate to win the game.
The Coogs dropped one to ECU Saturday night, but not without a fight. In the 8th inning, Cameron Nickens had a miraculous web gem, robbing a home run ball from going over the left field fence.
Ian McMillan and Malachi Lott hit home runs in the bottom of the 8th to bring the Cougars within one run. Unfortunately, the late-inning heroics weren’t enough, as the Cougars lost 5-4.
The Sunday rubber game was all power for the Cougars. Brad Burckel hit a solo blast in the 3rd and Zach Arnold with a two-run homer in the 5th. Alex Lopez sent one over the left field wall, scoring three runs, bringing the score to 6-4, securing the game and series win.
Midweek and Beyond
In Tuesday’s matchup against crosstown rival Rice, the Coogs’ never-say-die attitude was on full display again. Despite an 11-6 deficit in the 6th inning, they scrapped along to win with a walk-off Cameron Nickens single in the 9th to win 14-13.
Houston is now 15-14 overall, with a 2-1 conference record. They travel to Wichita this weekend to continue conference play against the Shockers. First pitch is on Friday at 6:00 CST.