In an era of opportunism at the cavernous TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, the Texas Longhorns were exactly that early in a 4-0 win over the Vanderbilt Commodores on Friday, all while benefitting from a tremendous outing from Texas senior starter Nathan Thornhill, who was perhaps slightly short of dominant, but still produced sensational results.
Before talking about that opportunism offensively, the performance of Thornhill deserves top billing, as he threw 131 pitches through eight innings, struck out five, allowed only one walk, and scattered six harmless hits on the day to set up an elimination game for both teams on Saturday at a to be determined time, depending on what happens in the late game between Virginia and Ole Miss.
If the Cavaliers win and eliminate the Rebels, the Horns will play in the evening game on Saturday. Otherwise, Texas will play the early game.
The winner of the Saturday game between the Dores and the Horns will move on to the finals as the Horns will send bulldog Parker French to the mound in another huge game for this special team on its special run.
After closer John Curtiss was unavailable on Wednesday against UC-Irvine, the big right-hander relieved Thornhill for the ninth and pitched a perfect inning.
Prior to the appearance from Curtiss, the Cedar Park product Thornhill was as effective against the Commodores for eight innings as he was for only seven against the Anteaters last Saturday, scattering four hits in the first four innings before working a perfect fifth and sixth that were critical after the five base runners he allowed through four frames. By the end of the sixth, his pitch count sat right around 100 pitches.
In the battle of pure stuff, the edge before the game went to 6'3, 225-pound Vanderbilt starter Tyler Ferguson, but it was Thornhill who was able to locate his pitches, marking a major difference between the two starters -- one that resulted in a dominant performance by Thornhill in what has mostly been a long line of them for Texas starting pitchers since postseason play begin in the Houston Regional.
On Twitter, the talk throughout the seventh and the eighth innings was the pitch count for Thornhill, especially after he allowed leadoff base runners in both frames. But the trust shown in him by pitching coach Skip Johnson was repaid, as the Texas starter was able to get through the eighth without visibly laboring. A breaking ball to strike out switch-hitting left fielder Bryan Reynolds, who had been hitting .457 in the postseason entering the game, helped reduce a possible scoring chance before a line out ended the inning and Thornhill's evening.
The Texas offense didn't take long either in providing Thornhill some serious margin for error, as talented Vanderbilt sophomore starter Tyler Ferguson was run by patient Texas hitters after failing to record even three outs. Credited with two earned runs, Ferguson only gave up one hit, but hit leadoff batter Brooks Marlow, the Texas second baseman, walked left fielder Ben Johnson and hit center fielder Mark Payton with a pitch to load the bases.
A nasty fastball low and outside set down catcher Tres Barrera looking before Ferguson suffered some bad luck -- a hard-hit ball towards the second baseman that should have resulted in at least one out and possibly and inning-ending double play instead struck the umpire, giving shortstop CJ Hinojosa an infield hit and an RBI.
After Ferguson struck out another batter, right fielder Collin Shaw, a walk to designated hitter Madison Carter ended the day extremely prematurely for Feguson, a pitcher who came into the game holding opposing hitters to a batting average under .200 and an 8-3 record that matched that of Thornhill.
Still, there was lost opportunities in the inning with the strikeouts of Barrera and Shaw and another from first baseman Kacy Clemens, who has made a habit of struggling with the bat in his hands this postseason, ending numerous rallies.
However, the bats woke up in the second inning to relieve some pressure on the light-hitting first baseman, as third baseman Zane Gurwitz drove a ball over the left fielders head to lead off the bottom of the second and turned the play into a triple.
Remarkably in a College World Series defined by sacrifice bunts and singles, Marlow followed up the triple by Gurwitz with a triple of his own into right field when the Vanderbilt defender opted to try for the out instead of reducing the damage. As it happened, the damage was done with his failed dive.
After the two big hits, it was back to small ball for Texas, as Payton was able to lay down a bunt that the relief pitcher was unable to field cleanly, driving in a run and allowing the Yankee draft pick to reach safely.
By the time the top of the fifth had ended, Texas had hit only three balls into the outfield -- the two triples and a harmless flyout. How's that for opportunism?
After starting 2-19 with RISP in the College World Series, Texas started 3-7 on Friday until Johnson and Patyon were retired, the latter with a diving effort from the Vanderbilt first baseman Zander Wiel in the bottom of the sixth that relieved a bases loaded threat.
In fact, the only real criticism of the Longhorns on this day was the inability to drive relief pitcher Brian Miller from the game. With a sidearm delivery and nasty slider, Miller was able to last innings and strike out eight Texas batters to preserve the rest of the Vanderbilt bullpen for the critical Saturday contest that will determine which team makes the finals.
The magical run may end on Saturday with another power arm on the mound for Vanderbilt, but at this point it's impossible to count out a Texas team that has scrapped offensively despite some struggles in clutch situation and has received absolutely remarkable starting pitching.
Soak it up, Longhorn fans, as Texas is back playing games deep into the College World Series with the type of baseball that will forever remain in the hearts of fans and would put the team among the most remarkable in school history with a little more execution and three more wins.
Three. More. Wins.
Let's hook 'em.