Commentary

Horns take a Chance on Ruffin

Originally Published: March 5, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

AUSTIN, Texas -- Augie Garrido has been a college baseball coach for 42 seasons. He has won 1,724 games, more than any coach in Division I history. He also has lost 795, which is to say that he knows what a callous mistress his sport can be.

"I'm very humbled by the game," the Texas head coach said, "because I know how cruel the game can be. It's like a wild animal. You think it's your pet, and it eats you. So I'm aware of that. It's a healthy fear and respect that I have for the game."

[+] EnlargeAugie Garrido
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesAugie Garrido thinks the 2010 Texas pitching staff will be the best in his 42 seasons.

Garrido, 71, did not lead five teams to the College World Series title by mouthing off. In his world, Chad Ochocinco is a center fielder throwing out a runner at third. But as his No. 5 Longhorns (6-2) prepare to open the Houston College Classic, a six-team tournament, against No. 20 Rice on Friday at Minute Maid Park, Garrido dared to say what he believes about his pitching.

"You hate to say these things," Garrido said. "But I've coached for a long time. This is the deepest and the best staff that I've had."

This comes from a coach who sent three pitchers from his 1986 and '87 teams at Cal State Fullerton to the big leagues.Yet this Texas team has so many arms that Garrido plucked one of his aces, junior right-hander Chance Ruffin, out of the rotation and made him the Longhorns' closer.

Ruffin went 10-2, mostly as a starter, in a team-leading 124 2/3 innings a year ago. The switch leaves Garrido to shuffle four pitchers good enough to start in three slots. He wants a set rotation before Big 12 conference play begins in two weeks.

Sophomore Taylor Jungmann, who has allowed one earned run in two starts this season (2-0, 0.64 ERA, 18 strikeouts in 14 innings), is Garrido's "Friday night starter"; i.e., his ace. Jungmann went 11-3 with a 2.00 ERA as a freshman and earned the Longhorns' only victory in the championship-series loss to LSU last year.

That leaves juniors Cole Green (2-0, 1.80) and Brandon Workman (1-0, 4.09) and sophomore Austin Dicharry (0-1, 3.38) to battle for the other two slots. The odd man out will become a set-up man and spot starter.

"Jungmann is an old soul. He's pitched in the big leagues before," Garrido said. A smile creased his face. They don't call him the philosopher king of the dugout for nothing. "If he hasn't, he thinks he has. And how you perceive yourself has more to do with who you become than knowledge, talent or skill."

Ruffin perceived himself a starter. It took pitching coach Skip Johnson all of fall semester to convince Ruffin otherwise.

"He's a fiery guy," Johnson said of Ruffin. "He gets in there and gets after it. Good fastball, holds runners. He can throw a breaking ball behind in the count. His personality is well-suited to be used in that direction."

[+] EnlargeChance Ruffin
Elsa/Getty ImagesAfter putting together a 10-2 record as a starter in 2009, Chance Ruffin will make his throws as a closer in 2010.

Johnson said he enlisted the other pitchers to help him make his case to Ruffin.

"Early on, we knew that Chance wasn't wanting to do it," Jungmann said. "He thought he kind of wanted to do it, but he still wanted to be the Friday night [starter], which he's been pretty much since he got here. But we started talking to him about the role he would have. The closer is one of the most important parts of the team. I think he was really up for it."

Ruffin, the son of 12-year former major league pitcher Bruce Ruffin, a member of the 1983 national champion Longhorns, described his initial reaction to the move as caution.

"I didn't want to wear out my arm," he said. My dad warned me about wearing my arm out there like that. Skip assured me that wouldn't happen. He has done a great job so far. Another thing that assured me it's the right thing to do is how deep and confident we are in our pitching and bullpen this year."

Ruffin has sought advice from his dad, who told him to throw from flat ground in the early innings to do some initial loosening, and from former Longhorn Huston Street, the 2005 American League Rookie of the Year who saved 35 games for the Colorado Rockies last season. Street stressed developing a routine.

"For the most part I have pretty much settled into a routine and feel comfortable with it," Ruffin said.

He blew a save against New Mexico in the second game of the season but showed he had the short-term memory critical for a closer. Against UT-Pan American on Tuesday, Ruffin saved a 3-2 victory by getting six outs on only 25 pitches. He is 0-1 with an 0.93 ERA and two saves in five appearances.

"How these things unfold is directly related to how the pitchers handle the adversities they face," Garrido said. "Do they grow from them and become more competitive, or do they become less competitive? So it's all about fear and confidence. And the game certainly puts you through both.

That sounds a lot like life.

Well, to me, baseball is a metaphor for life," Garrido said. "It's why baseball is important."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com