The Texas Longhorns return to the field in Omaha on Tuesday at 2:37 p.m. Central on ESPN in an elimination game against the Florida Gators hoping to shake off Sunday’s disappointing blowout at the hands of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
For the Horns, Blair Henley (6-6, 3.75 ERA) will take the mound for his first start since since securing the Austin Regional by going 7.1 strong innings against Indiana while allowing two unearned runs. Henley’s last appearance wasn’t as successful, as the sophomore allowed a run on two walks while failing to secure an out against Tennessee Tech in the Austin Super Regional’s final game.
During a postseason run in which David Pierce pushed nearly all the right buttons to make his first College World Series appearance as a head coach, Pierce’s handling of his pitching staff came into question in the Arkansas game. Pierce decided to use No. 2 starter Chase Shugart in relief coming out of the rain delay with the Horns already down 5-2 with the bases loaded and no outs. The move didn’t pay off, as Shugart allowed three runs on two hits and left the game after failing to retire a batter.
Now Pierce is using his third starter in a critical game after Shugart threw 10 pitches. The thinking, apparently, is that Henley is at his best as a starter, while Shugart will still be available in relief, if necessary. However, a second relief appearance in three days would probably leave Shugart unavailable on Thursday if Texas is able to eliminate Florida.
In that scenario, Matteo Bocchi would likely get the start.
But first, the Longhorns have to secure a victory against the reigning national champions, who are coming off their own disappointing Sunday performance. Texas Tech took down Florida, 6-3, courtesy of three unearned runs and nine hits against Gators ace Brady Singer. The loss was only the second of the season for Singer.
On Tuesday, Texas won’t receive any breaks from the Florida staff, as head coach Kevin O’Sullivan will trot out another first-round selection — Jackson Kowar, who has a 9-5 record and 3.24 ERA with 102 strikeouts. Kowar was selected by the Kansas City Royals with the 33rd selection.
So after facing undefeated Arkansas ace Blaine Knight on Sunday, Texas will face a pitcher who was valued even more highly than Knight. Listed at 6’6, Kowar is an imposing presence on the mound and features a fastball that reaches into the mid 90s and a changeup that is considered one of the best in college baseball. However, Kowar doesn’t have a reliable third pitch, the significant limiting factor for him as a pitcher.
Perhaps as a result, Kowar has struggled in some recent appearances, allowing seven runs in starts against Mississippi State and FAU. He also walked seven batters combined in those games. Over his last four starts, Kowar has also allowed four of the 10 home runs he’s given up on the season.
The defense has also been shaky behind him, which could result in O’Sullivan sacrificing some offense to ensure that Kowar doesn’t have to record extra outs against the Longhorns.
Offensively, Florida doesn’t possess nearly as much firepower as Tennessee Tech and Arkansas — only two players on the team are hitting above .300, with third baseman Jonathan India leading the way at .355 with 20 home runs. Right fielder Wil Dalton is also dangerous with 19 home runs, but he’s prone to striking out, leading the team with 71.
For Texas offensively, Kody Clemens is hoping to bounce back getting only one hit in five at bats and striking out twice against Arkansas. The rest of the lineup’s power played to the warning track in that game, with DJ Petrinsky and Zach Zubia both narrowly missing home runs.
There’s also a chance that Pierce could tweak the lineup again. At the top of the order, that might be necessary, as David Hamilton and Duke Ellis both failed to get hits on Sunday, continuing the struggles for both players. Austin Todd is a possible replacement for Ellis, as he got a hit in his only plate appearance on Sunday.
Lower in the order, Tate Shaw came through with three hits and a walk against the Hogs, but Masen Hibbeler, Jake McKenzie, and Ryan Reynolds combined for only two hits in 10 at bats.
Can the Longhorns offense break through against Kowar like the Bulldogs and Owls did in recent games? If Clemens isn’t single handedly carrying the offense, what are the odds of success?
The answer to those questions, as well as Henley’s performance on the mound, will determine whether the 2018 Texas season will continue beyond Tuesday.