Cougars’ veteran toughness has guided club into postseason
For the second year in a row, the Cougar baseball team has found itself in win-the-conference-or-go-home territory going into Tuesday’s American Athletic Conference Tournament opener.
After coming up a half-game behind No. 15 East Carolina for the regular season title, the Cougars will surely need to win the conference in Florida if they want to make their first NCAA Regional since 2018.
However, with the amount of adversity this team has gone through just to get to this point, the amount of intensity and urgency required to keep winning has almost become the norm for UH.
“Every game has felt like an elimination game this past month,” said head coach Todd Whitting. “We’ve done everything in our power to put ourselves in this position.”
After stumbling to a 5-11 start, Houston finally got on a roll in mid-March and went on to win all eight of its conference series.
According to junior utility player Justin Murray, the turnaround started when the Cougars swept Minnesota, and soon after beat ECU at home, which coincided with Murray getting out of his own slow start.
“The Minnesota series is when things started kind of clicking and going our way… And taking that into ECU and winning that series,” Murray said. “Baseball is a weird game. Sometimes things are going to go poorly, and then the next thing you know, out of nowhere, you start seeing the ball better.”
Murray himself has been a revelation for UH this year as one of the many veterans that have crucially stepped up this year. A transfer from Dartmouth, Murray has led the team with a .365 batting average — a good average for second in the conference and AAC Newcomer Position Player of the Year honors.
“We knew we were getting a good player. We didn’t know we were getting a great player,” Whitting said. “Murray’s having MVP-type numbers.”
The most unexpected part of Murray’s contribution, though, has been his pitching. Having won AAC Player and Pitcher of the Week consecutively to end the season, the North Carolina native has been huge in relieving pressure off of both the pitchers and hitters.
“Hitters are going to sputter sometimes and pitchers are the same way,” Murray said, “but the good teams pick each other up.”
In the midst of an injury-ravaged pitching staff that has lost key arms such as senior Jose Torrealba, The Cougars have had to scramble all year to plug the many holes of the rotation.
Luckily, behind the patchwork staff is the AAC’s best defense. Led by junior All-Conference third baseman Zach Arnold, the Cougars have committed a conference-low 36 errors.
“I’m extremely proud of our staff and our unit,” Whitting said. “You’re talking about a unit that’s beat but they didn’t quit.”
That battle-tested, no-quit mentality is what has gotten UH to this point, and it is what is going to give the Cougars a chance when it begins the AAC tournament against Tulane.
“I really want it for this club,” Whitting said. “Last year was one of my favorite teams I’ve ever had, and this is basically the same group. They’re very professional; they’re very prepared… It’s one of the most enjoyable bunches I’ve been around.”