After Texas dropped the first game of the College World Series to California-Irvine, I wrote that all the Longhorns had to do to get out of their bracket was win four in a row against some really good teams. They're 75% of the way there after eliminating Louisville, getting some revenge against Irvine to send the Anteaters packing, and riding Nathan Thornhill's great performance to a 4-0 win over Vanderbilt yesterday.
Vandy, of course, had come through the winner's bracket, meaning Texas' win yesterday was only half the battle. Texas came in needing to beat the 'Dores twice, while Vandy has to beat Texas only once to advance to next week's national championship series. So the Longhorn win yesterday served to set up a winner-take-all matchup at 7:00 PM tonight.
As good as tonight's starting hurler Parker French has been, it's unrealistic to expect the Longhorns to hold Vandy scoreless over 18 innings. The Commodores hit too many balls hard yesterday, despite Thornhill pitching beautifully, to have any confidence Texas will be lucky enough to get another shutout.
Which means Texas will need another few runs. Four, the total from yesterday, may well be sufficient, but it's unlikely Texas will benefit from two hit batsmen and a walk before ever having to put a ball in play, then get around an unacceptable strikeout by the cleanup hitter and apparent inning-ending double play ball that happens to hit the ump for an automatic single today. Nor are Vandy's outfielders likely to trip over themselves and make an ill-advised diving attempt to allow back-to-back triples.
Oh, and Carson Fulmer is pitching for the 'Dores. He brings a 1.88 ERA and has held opponents to a .194 average. The sophomore will make life tough for the Texas hitters, and for me there are two keys to this game: Tres Barrera and Kacy Clemens. For the former, Augie Garrido has stubbornly left him in the cleanup role despite his looking overmatched throughout the College World Series thus far. He's had a fantastic freshman campaign and the next two years look bright, but in the here and now Texas needs him to put together some decent at-bats for the first time in Omaha.
As for Clemens, the fellow freshman also has a bright future and has been great in clutch situations throughout the season. That is, like Barrera, until Omaha. The first baseman has played well in the field and doesn't appear to be getting rattled, but he has also failed to put together strong plate appearances over the last four games. If those guys return to regular-season form, that would give Vandy two more bats to deal with and greatly increase Texas' chances of pushing a few runs across.
So it's all on the line tonight. Texas needs as good as French has on the hill and a full team performance at the plate. With a win, the Longhorns will earn the honor of a three-game series against an excellent Virginia squad with a fully rested pitching staff. With a loss? Well, a Texas team that looked dead in the water, and whose 2014 season looked like it might be enough of a disappointment to put Garrido's job in jeopardy, will leave Omaha with a 3-2 record in this College World Series and an unbelievable amount of talent returning for next year.
But that kind of talk is for a couple of weeks from now. Nothing is ever guaranteed in sports, least of all a return trip to the College World Series de facto semifinals. When an opportunity like this is within your grasp, even if the opportunity itself is a supremely pleasant surprise, you don't let it slip through your fingers without a fight. Texas has made it clear over the last week that they will show up ready to play. Here's hoping they catch lightning in a bottle one more time to complete an incredible run through the losers' bracket.
First pitch is at 7:00 CDT on ESPN. This is your open thread. Hook 'em!