The gritty Texas Longhorns weren't ready to head home from Omaha after two games, winning a convincing 4-1 contest against the Louisville Cardinals at Ameritrade Park in Omaha on Monday behind a dominant seven-plus innings from junior right hander Parker French.
The Longhorns will next face off against the loser of tonight's UC-Irvine-Vanderbilt contest on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT.
It was another bulldog performance on the mound for French, who has been spectacular this postseason in giving up only one earned run in the last 13 innings after helping to shutout Houston to advance from the Austin Super Regional.
And the bats once again came alive well enough to score some big runs to take advantage of Louisville mistakes. It wasn't about clutch base hits, but rather about moving runners up with sacrifice bunts and then scoring runs on sacrifice flies and Louisville errors -- all four runs were a result of sacrifice flies or errors.
Neither side threatened much through the first two innings, as French was able to eliminate a Louisville lead-off runner in the bottom of the first with a double play. Two strikeouts defined the second inning as the starter was able to locate his fastball with serious velocity, typically sitting between 92 and 94 on the radar gun.
Third baseman Zane Gurwitz provided the first scoring opportunity for the Longhorns in the top of the third by lacing a double just inside the left-field line -- in a week where Ameritrade Park has played, extra base hits have been at a premium and Monday proved no different.
Moved along to third by a dribbler up the middle by leadoff hitter Brooks Marlow, Gurwitz needed every bit of his speed to beat the throw home by the Louisville left fielder on a short pop up. Head coach Augie Garrido had tried a safety squeeze earlier in the at bat, but Johnson was unable to get the bunt down. Then, with two outs, he was able to get just enough air under his sacrifice fly to provide the game's first run.
The decision was both an acknowledgement of the ballpark playing so small, reducing the ability of line drives to find grass in front of outfielders and the poor situational hitting on Saturday that doomed the game against the Anteaters when the pitching staff faltered late. On Monday, Garrido provided few opportunities for his hitters to make the first out with the bat in their hand.
Strong defensive plays by Gurwitz and shortstop CJ Hinojosa backed up French in the bottom of the frame before two base runners complicated the situation for the Texas starter on a single and a walk. After falling behind in the count, French recovered by forcing a groundout to third, as Gurwitz forced out the leading runner to end the inning.
The Horns threatened again in the top of the fourth after Hinojosa lined a single and right fielder Collin Shaw battled to follow up with a single of his own, setting up an obvious sacrifice situation for designed hitter Madison Carter, who was able to get his sacrifice down.
Exorcising some demons from missed opportunities on Saturday, first baseman Kacy Clemens was able to bounce a ball up the middle that was mishandled by the first basemen, scoring a run and keeping the rally going by avoiding the critical second out and setting up a potentially big inning.
Unfortunately, Gurwitz struck out swinging at a pitch in the dirt and second baseman Brooks Marlow lashed a hard liner to his counterpart that ended the inning. Once again, the narrative quickly became whether or not the lack of situational hitting would eventually come back to burn the Horns, increasing the pressure on French to remain locked in.
The early returns in that regard were positive, as French continued to use a dominant fastball to mow down Louisville hitters, setting the Cardinals down in order in the bottom of the fourth. The big right-hander continued cruising in the fifth despite allowing a two-out baserunner, retiring the side without further issues. And the sixth inning? A continuation of the same story with two quick outs, a slight loss of concentration to allow the third batter to reach base, then another quick end to the frame.
The following inning, French allowed the lead-off runner to reach base, but a botched hit-and-run by the Cardinals effectively ended the threat when Marlow caught a popup in short left field and was able to throw out the runner at first base. In total, French needed only 10 pitches in the inning.
The start of the eighth was not kind to French, as he walked the first batter and hit the second before a sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third, ending his day after 7.1 scoreless innings. Making the situation more dangerous was the fact that the first two hitters of the inning were the first two batters in the Louisville order, forcing left hander Travis Duke to face the clean-up hitter.
After falling behind 2-0 and 3-1 in the count, Duke was able to induce a groundout to Marlow that allowed one run to score, but limited the damage and preserved the win for French by striking out designed hitter Nick Solak to end the threat. The final stat line for French was 7.1 innings pitched, four hits, one earned run, three walks, and three strikeouts. marking a second consecutive outstanding postseason appearance for the junior from Dripping Springs.
To some extent, the Horns had been able to create their own luck in the top of the fifth to stretch the lead to 3-0 by putting the ball in play. In truth, it was a error on the Louisville second baseman when he was unable to field a short hop on a liner and another throwing error on the second baseman attempting to turn the inning-ending double play that resulted in center field Mark Payton scoring a critical run. It was the third error of the game and the fourth in 14 innings for the Cardinals.
And the Texas hitters were able to respond to the score by Louisville, putting runners on third and second with no one out, moving up the runners with a bunt, and knocking in a critical insurance run when Marlow lined out to the right fielder.
Travis Duke worked a flawless final frame to preserve the victory and earn a save. Despite the fact that his fastball sits in the mid-80s, he was perfectly willing to challenge Cardinals hitters with it and found success doing so.
The need to win three more consecutive games to reach the finals puts into perspective just how much the Longhorns lost by blowing the narrow lead against UC-Irvine, but the season lives for at least another game and this Texas baseball team gave fans one more reason to appreciate this magical postseason run.