You can call it magic. The fickle Baseball Gods smiling benevolently down upon the Longhorns. Maybe it's just pure moxie. Perhaps simple, blind luck. Whatever the case, it's becoming increasingly apparent that this Longhorn baseball team has "it." True, there are still games to win before the Longhorns would have an opportunity for a rare second dogpile -- if you choose to count the inpromptu falling over after Preston Clark's grand slam -- and the magic very well could leave.
But that isn't the point. The point is that there is a critical mass each sports team has to reach before fans begin to buy wholeheartedly into the belief that this team has what it takes to become a champion. Buying in before that critical mass sets a fan up for the type of heart-crushing, monumental disappointment from which it is difficult to recover. Buying in after that critical mass and there is little time to truly enjoy the moment, to savor in the deep, abiding belief that champions deserve. For this Longhorn fan, the largest comeback of the season during the most critical game was the moment when this team reached critical mass. I'm a believer.
Augie of the magic touch
Augie Garrido isn't afraid of leading his baseball team. He isn't afraid of going off on red-faced (well, more red-faced than usual) tirades and reaming out his players over a perceived lack of effort. But that's a tactic that can't be overused and there's little doubt that Garrido understands that.
He also isn't afraid of pulling back a player at the plate and discussing with them their approach. For a game that demands an uncluttered mind, it's almost counterintuitive that those little meetings could be helpful. It would be easy for those moments to psyche the player out, give him too much to think about.
Yet, precisely the opposite seems to happen. In the critical stages of the game against Southern Miss, after the Longhorns had repeatedly blown the lead with uncharacteristic mental mistakes, Garrido exhorted his team to take a patient approach at the plate. The Longhorns responded, allowing the Golden Eagle pitchers to throw pitch after pitch out of the strike zone. The final three runs of the game were anticlimatically scored via the walk.
Just last night, as the Longhorns committed more uncharacteristic mistakes -- or perhaps characteristic in Omaha after numerous mistakes in the first two games -- Garrido called his players over in the dugout for another motivational speech. Instead of going on a patented tirade about the mistakes made in the field, Garrido took another approach. This time, it was about removing the guilt from the players after the mistakes that they made. Garrido provied his players with the proverbial blank upon which to write their legacies.
Instead of allowing his team to focus on the negative, Garrido made sure that they understood the opportunity -- the opportunity to prove the talking heads in the booth wrong about a six-run lead being insurmountable against the incredible Mike Leake, the opportunity to create the type of highlights that lead Sportscenter, the opportunity to start over. To take advantage of that opportunity, Garrido told his players, the Longhorns had to start hitting their pitches, not Leake's pitches. Garrido reminded his players of the offensive explosion against Missouri in the Big 12 championship game that saw the Longhorns put 11 runs on the board in one inning.
As Garrido said after the game, it was more about how the players responded to his speech than the actual content of it. A correct statement, of course, but that isn't the point here. The point is that Garrido's speech gave them the mindset they needed -- it had an immediate and profound impact that can be easily measured: six runs in the inning after the speech and then four more unanswered runs later in the game. Fickle momentum switched dugouts and firmly sided with the team in burnt orange.
Even late in the game Garrido maintained that magic touch. After Brandon Loy swung at an unhittable changeup down in the zone in a critical situation as the Longhorns tried to add insurance runs, Garrido called him over and, smiling, talked with Loy about his approach at the plate. After swinging about another changeup, Loy lined a ball into left-center field, scoring the runners on second and third.
There's no question that this team buys into what their coach is selling. The leading hitter on the team, Brandon Belt, laid down two excellent sacrifice bunts, never appearing frustrated about being unable to swing away. Kevin Keyes has graciously given way to pinch runners late in teh game, never holding a grudge about losing so many crucial at-bats in the game against Boston College. There's none of the dissention that lead Chance Ruffin to stand in front of his teammates last year after the beatdown at the hands of Missouir and implore his team to rally around itself.
No, Augie Garrido once again has his team more than just happy to be in Omaha. As Travis Tucker says, it's hard not to believe his head coach after all the team has been through. Following the magical regional final against Army, Garrido said that if the Longhorns maintained the confidence generated by the two incredible victories, anything was possible. If the first two games in Omaha are any indication, that confidence remains and anything is still possible.
Without the patience of his teammates at the plate, Cameron Rupp could easily have been one of the primary villains of a loss to Southern Miss on Sunday. Besides an 0-3 day at the plate, Rupp commited a critical catcher's interference as the Golden Eagles rallied to take an late lead, failed to stop a wild pitch that lead to a run, and could not come up with the one-hop throw from Michael Torres that allowed the go-ahead run to score. Rupp would allow another wild pitch in the ninth inning before Taylor Jungmann helped end his poor day behind the plate.
Early on Tuesday, it was much of the same. Rupp threw a ball into centerfield and allowed a run to score on a steal attempt when neither Brandon Loy nor Travis Tucker covered the bag -- with two outs and a runner on third, Rupp would probably have been advised to hold onto that ball. He also allowed a pass ball on a pitch out when he took his eye off the pitch to check the runner, allowing another run, a completely unforced mistake. All in all, it was not a good start to his first appearance at Rosenblatt.
However, this is a story about redemption. And Cameron Rupp more than redeemed himself. In the third inning, as the Longhorn hoped to regain momentum down 6-0 after two sloppy innings on defense, Rupp paid heed to Augie Garrido's speech only minutes before, waiting on a pitch up in the zone and driving it just over the right-field fence to cut the Sun Devil lead in half. After his teammates tied the game, Rupp had another opportunity in the seventh inning with the game still tied. Once again waiting on the pitch, Rupp drove another ball over the fence in right center, this time putting the ball several rows deep.
Rupp was as happy as anyone to atone for his earlier mistakes:
I was really relieved after making those errors. This was my worst defensive game. I couldn't do anything right, and then to have that really got my confidence back.
Speaking of confidence, that one run was all that Taylor Jungmann would need.
Ice water in his veins
Taylor Jungmann doesn't know the meaning of nervous. The lanky right-hander never seems awed by the moment. Never scared to attack hitters with confidence in his ability to make pitches. And all for good reason, as the opposing hitters have learend in Omaha.
After putting away TCU in the super regional with a masterful six-inning performance that included four innings of no-hit baseball to start the game, Jungmann has moved back into a familiar role of stopper. Throughout much of the season, Jungmann was the man Skip Johnson called upon to put out fires if a starting pitcher tired early or experienced trouble. Unlike some starters who only feel comfortable on a regimented schedule leading up to their appearances, Jungmann doesn't seem to care when he takes the baseball.
On Sunday evening, it was as the replacement to an ineffective Austin Wood, who struggled to throw strikes and seemed to lack any confidence in his fastball. No problem, as Jungmann go the needed two outs to shut the door on the pesky Golden Eagles. On Tuesday, it was in relief of another ineffective Longhorn, this time Austin Dicharry, who also struggled finding the strike zone after replacing starter Chance Ruffin. The powerful Arizona State lineup barely had a chance against the stud freshman, banging out only two hits in 5.2 innings of another masterful pitching.
Even when the Sun Devils did hit the ball hard, Jungmann's defense made the needed plays. A diving stop by Brandon Belt took away a sure base hit and Connor Rowe went to the wall in center in the ninth to retire the dangerous Kole Calhoun.
More impressive even than his ability to pound the strike zone with three pitches was Jungmann's demeanor on the mound, alternately staring down an Arizona State hitter on the way to the dugout after the opposing player had the unmitigated gall to start heading down to first base on a 3-1 pitch that was eventually called a strike, then smiling after Brandon Belt made his diving stop and Rowe made the play at the wall. Like his teammates during the comeback, Jungmann was having fun out there, soaking in the moment, but never letting it overwhelm him. That's just not how Jungmann rolls
The unsung hero
If one player has been relatively lost in the shuffle during this post-season, it is Kevin Keyes. The right-fielder with prodigious power was the one who homered and drove in the two runs against Boston College early in the game that would be the only time the Longhorns crossed the plate for 23 long innings. It was Keyes who staked the Longhorns to their early two-run lead against TCU in the first game of the super regional with a double that scored two teammates. In the deciding game against TCU it was Keyes again who homered in the first inning on a mammoth shot to left field to extend the Longhorn lead to 3-0, the kind of blast that leaves a pitcher shaking on the mound with a severe case of destroyed confidence.
Against Southern Miss, guess who drove in the first two runs of the game with another powerful double? You guessed it, Kevin Keyes. Another double from Keyes against Arizona State drove in a run in the eighth, following his single in the fourth that started the six-run rally in the inning.
While Keyes still struggles with his ability to consistently recognize breaking pitches, his approach at the plate is light-years better than it was even earlier in the season, when he still struggled to avoid striking out. Instead of trying to pull everything and overswinging, Keyes now often waits on pitches to allow himself more time to recognize breaking balls, while still possessing the pure power to drive the ball deep into right-center field. As much as any single player, Keyes epitomizes the improvement made by the Longhorns offense throughout the season -- no longer is this is a team that can't score runs.
Welcome to the College World Series, Russell Moldenhauer
The first person to admit that this season has been a giant struggle would probably be Moldenhauer himself. After off-season knee surgery and time spent tinkering with his swing, the lefty drafted in the third round out of high school looked like a player who didn't even belong in college baseball. Entering the game against Southern Miss, Moldenhauer was batting only .223 without a home run on the season and only eight runs batted in.
Like he often does, though, Augie Garrido was riding a hunch. Moldenhauer had been hitting the ball well in batting practice for weeks and Garrido decided to give him the opportunity against the Southern Miss right-hander, as neither David Hernandez nor Tant Shephard had proven themselves particularly worthy of playing time in the post-season. It didn't take long for the hunch to pay off. In his first at-bat, Moldenhauer worked an eight-pitch walk with two outs, giving Kevin Keyes the opportunity to drive in two runs with his double. In the sixth inning, Moldenhauer broke the 2-2 tie with a long home run to the opposite field. He wasn't done yet, doubling in the critical eighth inning, the last Longhorn hit of the evening and the play that lead to the intentional walk of Kevin Keyes to load the bases and allow the subsequent walk that brought the Longhorns within one run.
Every post-season run has an unexpected hero or two and Russell Moldenhauer undoubtedly joined that club with his clutch performance against Souther Miss. And it just might lead Augie to develop another hunch about pencilling him into the starting lineup again.
The power of a smile
Omaha is the minimum expectation for Texas baseball. After three years away, the expectations weighed as heavily as they have on the program since the early days of Garrido's tenure at Texas. Yet, instead of feeling the pressure, this Texas baseball team seems to bask in it -- to paraphrase Johann Kasper Levater, the Longhorns are diminishing the difficulties and making preponderate the advantage of their bold enterprise towards a national championship.
Even after Austin Wood and Preston Clark and Taylor Jungmann made themselves Longhorn heroes the regional and super regional rounds, increasing the pressure under the bright lights of Rosenblatt Stadium with the whole country finally tuning in to watch college baseball, the Longhorns just smile and keep on battilng. There was Cameron Rupp smiling with Augie Garrido in the dugout with Texas still down three runs to the second-best pitcher in college baseball. There was Taylor Jungmann, the freshman, smiling on the mound as his teammates made plays behind him.
There was belief, confidence, the spiritual sublimity preached by the Zen Master baseball coach, the "miracle" of a victory over ASU, as Garrido put it. A national championship is still a long ways away, but with the confidence that currently buoys this baseball team, why not believe?
Was Austin Wood's 13-inning performance not a demonstration of the heart of a champion? Was Preston Clark's grand slam, as the fifth-year senior neared the end of an injury-plagued career, not a demonstration of the heart of a champion? Cameron Rupp's home run? Taylor Jungmann's steely performances? Yes, yes, yes, and yes, these Longhorn heroes possess the collective heart of a champion. And that means it's time to believe.
The Longhorns, says Travis Tucker, will just "keep going out and playing baseball." So far, that's been more than enough.