The remarkable postseason run by the Texas Longhorns ended on Tuesday in Omaha as the Horns were no match for Florida Gators pitcher Jackson Kowar, who set a career high by striking out 13 hitters en route to a 6-1 Gators win at TD Ameritrade Park.
With a fastball that remained in the mid 90s late in the game and a devastating changeup, Kowar allowed a handful of base runners, but was always able to make the necessary pitches to keep Texas off the board. Seven at bats against Kowar with runners in scoring position represented the best chances the Longhorns had and Kowar rose to the occasion each time.
It wasn’t the first time, either — the junior right hander has struck out 10 or more batters three times in his career, including an 11-strikeout performance against TCU in last year’s College World Series.
Not even Kody Clemens could consistently compete against Kowar, striking out in each of his last two at bats after a single in the first inning. And with Clemens struggling to produce, the odds were never high that his teammates would have more success.
Nothing was more frustrating for Texas than the seventh inning, when Kowar departed with two outs. After Jake McKenzie led off with a single and Masen Hibbeler followed with a double. With runners on first and second and no outs, rain started to fall in Omaha as Kowar went well over 100 pitches. Kowar’s response? Striking out Tate Shaw and Ryan Reynolds before Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan pulled his first-round pick.
Kowar’s final line was 6.2 innings, five hits, two walks, and zero runs allowed with those 13 strikeouts, the most in a College World Series game since 2010. The changeup from Kowar was nothing short of filthy as the Florida star showed why it’s considered one of the best pitchers in college baseball:
Jackson Kowar, Disgusting Changeup movement. pic.twitter.com/AI31XX5HVJ— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 19, 2018
Lefty Jordan Butler entered in relief and promptly struck out David Hamilton on four pitches to end the Texas threat.
For the Gators, a four-run sixth inning blew the game open after starter Blair Henley and reliever Chase Shugart battled to maintain a 1-0 deficit.
Henley immediately got himself in trouble, walking the first batter on four pitches, giving up a hard-hit single just beyond the diving glove of Clemens at second base, and earning an early visit from David Pierce after throwing two balls to start the at bat against Jonathan India. When India lined a single into left field to score a run, Henley still hadn’t recorded an out.
Then Henley got some help from his defense — Hamilton made a sensational play at shortstop to pick a one hopper and quickly pivoted to start a successful double play.
When Henley induced a fly out to end the inning, he’d avoided significant damage, but hadn’t inspired much confidence from his head coach, who quickly sent Chase Shugart down to the bullpen.
Nor did Henley’s efforts to start the second inning, as two singles and a walk loaded the bases with no outs. A shallow fly ball to right field wasn’t enough to score the runner from third and a strikeout and groundout ended the inning. With the game and the season seemingly on the line, Henley was able to make enough pitches to get out of the jam.
The miraculous escape to the second inning wasn’t enough to get Henley on track. An error by Reynolds at third base and a walk put two runners on base with no outs, but a lineout and run down put Henley in position to end the inning. Instead, he issued another walk, prompting Pierce to call for Shugart.
Henley’s day ended after 2.2 innings with four hits allowed, four walks, and one earned run. As poorly as Henley pitched, Texas was lucky in facing a 1-0 deficit when he departed — of the sophomore’s 47 pitches, only 22 went for strikes.
With a swinging strikeout, Shugart got the Horns out of the inning as the Gators once again failed to capitalize. Through three innings, Florida had left six runners on base and gotten only one hit in eight at bats with runners in scoring position.
Shugart made sure that trend didn’t continue in the fourth inning, striking out the side and showing three plus pitches early in his outing — his fastball, which reached 95 miles per hour, his slider, and his curveball.
Kowar, a first-round draft pick, also struggled a bit to settle in early. Duke Ellis worked a walk and Clemens sent him to third with a well-hit single to center field. Unfortunately, Zach Zubia fouled off a hittable fastball early in his at bat and eventually succumbed to Kowar’s elite changeup. So did DJ Petrinsky following a lengthy at bat.
By the end of the third inning, Kowar looked unhittable, with his changeup consistently drawing swings and misses and his fastball touching 98 miles per hour on a strikeout of Kody Clemens. By the end of the fourth inning, he’d retired nine straight Longhorns.
In the fifth, a leadoff single by Hibbeler and a bunt by Shaw put Hibbeler in scoring position with one out, but two strikeouts sandwiched around a Hamilton walk ended the threat. And the struggles with runners in scoring position continued for the Longhorns.
Shugart looked poised to work around a leadoff double in the sixth, but a two-out walk and a single up the middle extended the Florida lead. And then Shugart truly paid a high price for failing to retire either of the previous two batters, as Florida’s best hitter, Jonathan India, crushed a 2-1 fastball up and out over the middle to left field for a three-run home run, his 21st of the season.
Once again, the sixth inning proved catastrophic for the Texas pitching staff, with the four runs allowed against Florida combined with the eight runs scored by Arkansas representing enough damage to eliminate the Longhorns.
A solo home run to open the seventh inning chased Shugart, who turned in a game performance over 4.1 innings, but couldn’t dodge the big blows from the Florida offense.
In the eighth inning, Texas finally got on the board when Petrinsky’s single scored Austin Todd.
Tasked with facing the No. 3 team in RPI in Arkansas and then the No. 1 team in Florida proved to be too much for this Texas team when the pitching staff struggled and the offense faltered.
However, the disappointment of the early exit from Omaha is mitigated by the reality that this Longhorns program is once again headed in the right direction and has a chance to improve next season with a significant amount of talent returning and help arriving in the recruiting class.
Thanks for all the fun over the last few weeks, Horns. Let’s make an appointment to get back to Omaha next year.