On a warm, breezy day that turned cooler as rain moved in at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, the Texas Longhorns fell to the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles on Saturday, 5-4.
The powerful offense of the Golden Eagles came through in key moments, especially down in the count, and the four through eight spots in the Texas order went 0-17 on the day. Not a single batter got a hit with a runner on base for the Longhorns.
And so the Golden Eagles of the Ohio Valley Conference proved to be for real — as if the Oxford Regional win against the host Rebels wasn’t enough — and the Longhorns are now on the verge of elimination in Sunday’s game at 2 p.m. Central on ESPN2.
Only 21 percent of the teams that lose the first game in a super regional are able to advance to the College World Series. Those are long odds, but the Longhorns have pulled out gritty efforts all season.
Is this team capable of two more?
In the first inning, starter Nolan Kingham showed the form that allowed him to turn in impressive outings against TCU late in the regular season and Texas A&M in the Austin Regional. After striking out the first two batters, Kingham forced a groundout, hinting at another dominate outing thanks to his command of multiple pitchers.
When the Longhorns came to bat, Duke Ellis struck the game’s first big blow, sending a ball deep and off the glove of the left fielder, who crashed into the wall as Ellis took second base. Following a passed ball during a long at bat by Kody Clemens that ultimately produced a walk, Zach Zubia took care of business by sending a sacrifice fly to right field to score Ellis and take a 1-0 lead.
Through two innings, Kingham gave up only one hit — a ground ball in the hole between the the shortstop and third basemen — but ended the inning with double play.
Getting ahead in the third inning wasn’t a problem, but finishing batters was an issue for the Texas ace. Three hitters managed singles against 0-2 counts, eventually leading to a 2-1 lead as Kingham’s command faltered. The third single, especially, the one that resulted in two RBIs, was a result of Kingham missing his spot significantly as the pitch stayed up and over the plate.
Fortunately for the Horns, Kingham was able to get out of the inning with a big strikeout and a groundout against the 3-4 hitters for the Golden Eagles.
As Texas has done so many times this season, the team immediately responded. No. 9 hitter Jake McKenzie laced a double just inside the left-field line, David Hamilton grounded out to the right side to advance him to third, and Duke Ellis brought McKenzie home on another sacrifice fly to tie the game.
And then Clemens came to the plate again. After two balls, a visit to the mound resulted in a well-placed strike. But Clemens was close to getting to Marcus Evey, having fouled off several pitches that he barely missed. On the 3-2 pitch, Clemens found familiar territory beyond the right-field fence as he showed off his signature bat flip on a pitch that was high and a bit outside. The home run was the 22nd of the season for Clemens and gave Texas the lead once again.
Kingham got into trouble once again in the top of the fifth inning, eventually giving up a double by Chase Chambers off the fall in right-center field that Tate Shaw couldn’t catch as he hit the fence. Two runs scored on the big swing, giving Tennessee Tech a 4-3 lead. Another double scored Chambers and stretched the lead to 5-3.
With that run, head coach David Pierce pulled Kingham after he gave up five runs on nine hits with five strikeouts and two walks. Despite the strong start, he simply couldn’t put enough batters away when he got ahead, and the hitting ability of the Golden Eagles eventually made the difference.
Kamron Fields came on in relief and was able to strike out the first batter he faced to end the threat. In the sixth inning, however, he struggled with his command and ultimately gave way to Josh Sawyer with the bases loaded.
Fortunately for Sawyer, a passed ball resulted in a play at the plate for the second out and a grounder to third ended the inning without Tennessee Tech stretching the lead.
With the heart of the Longhorns order coming up, Evey was extremely conservative against Clemens and Zubia, ultimately walking both and giving way to closer Ethan Roberts. Masen Hibbeler couldn’t get a bunt down against the cutter of Roberts, eventually striking out, and Ryan Reynolds and DJ Petrinsky both followed with strikeouts to end the inning.
With the bottom of the order up in the seventh, McKenzie came through once again with a double. As heavy rain dropped the temperature at Disch-Falk Field and made conditions more difficult, a pitch got by the catcher to advance the first baseman to third. Hamilton then came through with the third sacrifice fly of the game for the Longhorns to narrow the lead.
By that point in the game, the hitters from four through eight in the lineup had combined to go 0-12 against the Golden Eagles. Not good enough.
Neither was the top of the eighth inning from Sawyer. A close pitch just outside resulted in a walk on a 3-2 pitch, then an error on the pitcher when he tried to throw out the runner at second on a bunt furthered the exposure for the Longhorns. When Sawyer hit leadoff hitter Alex Junior in the face, the left hander departed in favor of Parker Joe Robinson with the bases loaded and no outs.
As Robinson has all season, he delivered, striking out the second and third hitters in the order before inducing a groundout by Chambers to end the threat. In the ninth, Robinson took care of business again, retiring three of the four batters he faced.
Ultimately, the three relief pitchers went 4.1 innings, struck out seven batters, and didn’t give up a single run to keep the Longhorns in the game.
The offense couldn’t come, through.
Now it’s time for that to change against a team that doesn’t lack for offensive firepower.