Whew. Watching this Longhorn baseball team is a heart-stopping experience. One would have been perfectly justified in thinking Texas had no business winning this thing after four innings. Arizona State's Mitchell Lambson had what appeared to be an impossible situation: a 2-1 lead, but the bases full of orange and nobody out. But after striking out Jordan Etier and Tant Shepherd, he got Mark Payton to ground out to second and ended the threat unscathed. Letting an opportunity like that go, after having already stranded a runner in each preceding inning, seemed to suggest that Texas' offense was going to be so anemic tonight that even a fantastic performance by Sam Stafford, Nathan Thornhill, Hoby Milner, and Corey Knebel might not be enough to get the win. After allowing a two-run opposite field shot in the first inning, the Texas pitchers settled in and completely shut Arizona State down.
Defensively, Texas was sharper and luckier than they had looked in the first two games. Even when they made mistakes, they turned out ok--such as Jacob Felts' ill-advised throw down to second on a steal attempt despite the pitch being ball four, only to be saved by a questionable batter's interference call by the umpire. Or the terrible relay throw to second that led to the runner being thrown out at third. Sometimes, baseball takes as much luck as skill and the defense should be commended for taking advantage of those good breaks and playing extremely crisp ball for the other 25 outs.
But there was that offense. Shepherd's K in the fourth was emblematic of what was going wrong at the plate. Texas seemed tentative, almost scared; the pitch that Shepherd watched for strike three was inner half, but not really even on the corner. It was a hitter's pitch if the hitter is ready for the fastball. But several Longhorns watched that exact, belt-high fastball go by in the early innings. It just didn't look like the bats were going to get it done.
But then they did. Credit the committee of pitchers and the defense for keeping their heads up and continuing to power through in a tight game, keeping the Longhorns right in it. After a gift from Arizona State in the form of a balk with a man on third, Texas had tied it up in the fifth. And then the character inning.
Two men were out in the sixth before Texas got a runner on. Then Tant Shepherd made up for his fourth inning transgression by crushing a double, and Mark Payton came through to score him with a single. Another ASU gift--an errant throw on Payton's steal attempt--put a man on third. It turns out Payton would have scored easily from second, as Brandon Loy came through with another double--and just like that Texas had two extra-base hits in an inning for the first time all weekend and a two-run lead after six. The pitching and defense, on which this team will continue to hang its hat in Omaha, made sure the Longhorns remained undefeated in 2011 when leading after six frames.
Put that sixth inning in perspective, if you would. It was the top of the order, coming to the plate against a pitcher who had more or less shut the Horns down to that point. They had two outs on them, and they played like leaders. When you're at the top of your team's lineup, you're expected to deliver in that situation--and that's what they did. It was the kind of thing championship teams do. We're not suggesting Texas should be the favorites to win their first game in Omaha, let alone the whole shabang; we're simply saying this team showed tonight that it has the mental toughness to handle just about anything.
So Texas returns to the College World Series for a record 34th time. It's fitting that the game's top program should be present for the christening of a new home for the event--TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha takes the place of the iconic Rosenblatt Stadium this year. The Longhorns will start their quest for the title against what many think is the best team in America, the Florida Gators. But Florida certainly looked human this weekend against Mississippi State, needing back-to-back walks and a three-run homer to put away the Bulldogs late in today's game. And the postgame behavior of the two teams had striking differences; Texas shook hands with each other and then the Sun Devils, sang the Eyes, and generally acted like they had more work to do. Florida dogpiled (as has every other team that has punched its ticket thus far), and their coach wildly did the Gator Chomp to the crowd rather than shake his counterpart's hand. There's a long time between now and Saturday, but Texas certainly seems to be starting from a better place mentally.
It won't get any easier after Florida; Texas will also be in a bracket with excellent squads from Vanderbilt and North Carolina. If the Longhorns find themselves in the championship series, they will have earned it. On the other side, the Aggies had a crazy loss against Florida State today to force Game Three tomorrow. Either Florida or Texas (the states) will have dual representation at the CWS (unless Dallas Baptist can somehow come back against Cal, giving Texas a chance for three). The outcome in Tallahassee will likely turn on how the Aggies bounce back from, frankly, embarrassing themselves by giving up 23 runs today. Now that Texas is safely in, we can say without reservation that we're pulling for the Ags to join us in Omaha.
Much more about Omaha later; for now, the story has to be the resolve and fearlessness with which the Longhorns have earned their way onto the game's biggest stage for two straight weekends. Let no one claim this team can't play with its back against the wall. No matter what happens to them in Omaha, don't turn the TV off until the last out is in the books. You can't give up on them.
Hook 'em, Horns.