A difficult opening two games bled into a third straight loss for the No. 9 Texas Longhorns in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Park in Arlington on Monday with an 8-1 loss to the No. 9 Ole Miss Rebels.
Through the first five innings, the game was defined by strong pitching performances from Texas right-hander Kolby Kubichek and Ole Miss right-hander Derek Diamond. But in a game-changing bottom of the sixth for the Rebels, Kubichek came out after an inning-opening double and the Longhorns bullpen couldn’t hold with the game tied at 1-1.
Texas head coach David Pierce brought in left-hander Lucas Gordon to replace Kubichek for Gordon’s first appearance with the Horns. The Los Angeles native lost the first batter on a seven-pitch walk thanks to three straight pitches outside the zone and Ole Miss opted not to sacrifice with runners on first and second and no outs. Rebels left fielder Kevin Graham vindicated the coaching decision by taking advantage of a breaking ball that Gordon left up in the zone with a soft single into center field that scored second baseman Peyton Chatagnier. He eventually left the game for a pinch runner in the seventh after three doubles and two runs scored in four at bats.
Gordon hit the next batter to load the bases, ending his debut in favor of junior college transfer Drew Shifflet, a right hander making his own initial appearance for the Longhorns.
Shifflet induced a flyout to shallow center field that stretched the Ole Miss lead to 3-1 on the sacrifice fly, then struck out the next batter on a good inside fastball. A four-pitch walk loaded the bases again and another single to center scored two more runs on a flat sinker from Shifflet up in the zone.
Texas was able to get out of the inning on a double-steal attempt by Ole Miss when shortstop Trey Faltine made a big-time throw to the plate and Ardoin held on to make the tag. But the struggles from the Longhorns bullpen were significant enough to give the Rebels a 5-1 lead.
For the third straight game, the bats just weren’t able to get going for the Longhorns. Diamond, who is scheduled to start on Saturdays for Ole Miss this season, had his fastball hitting 97 miles per hour, along with an excellent slider and an occasional changeup. For stretches of Monday’s game, he had dominating stuff.
Like the previous two games for the Longhorns, though an early opportunity fell short thanks to a lack of clutch hitting, this time in the second inning. Catcher Silas Ardoin was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame, then right fielder Dalton Porter singled up the middle for his first career hit. Faced with a sacrifice situation, third baseman Cam Williams did his job and advanced the runners, but the strikeouts piled up again with second baseman Murphy Stehly and shortstop Trey Faltine both going down swinging to end the Texas threat.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Diamond made his only big mistake, leaving a 93 mph fastball out over the plate — Williams didn’t miss, crushing it into the right-field bleachers to tie the game at 1-1. With Diamond’s command starting to suffer for the first time in the game, Faltine drew the first walk of the contest, but the struggles for graduate transfer Mike Antico continued with his 11th straight at bat for Texas without a hit and left fielder Eric Kennedy flied out to deep right-center field into the 374-foot cutout to end the inning.
The Horns weren’t able to further threaten Diamond, who left the game after allowing four hits and the single run over six innings with eight strikeouts. The strikeout issues for Texas didn’t improve after Diamond left the game, either, with right-hander Brandon Johnson striking out three Longhorns batters in his two innings of work. Another strikeout in the ninth marked 13 in the game and 46 over the first three games.
Kubichek doesn’t have a fastball as overpowering as Diamond’s heater, but his slider was working against the Rebels with seven strikeouts of his own through five innings. However, Ole Miss was able to get to Kubichek before he could develop a rhythm as a leadoff double to start the game and a passed ball set up a sacrifice fly by the Rebels.
During the third inning, Kubichek got some help from his catcher Ardoin, who picked Ole Miss first baseman Trey LaFleur off third base after Lafleur doubled and stole third. But Lafleur made up for it in the top of the ninth with a solo home run, the first of three runs for the Rebels in their final frame.
With those 46 strikeouts and only four runs scored over the three games in Arlington, the big story is clearly at the plate for Texas — simply putting the ball in play was difficult to open the season.
But this team has plenty of experience in the batter’s box and all three opponents in the showdown are ranked in the top 10. So there’s no reason to expect that players like Antico will continue struggling so much. An eighth-inning double should provide some confidence after the 0-of-11 start for the St. John’s transfer who is a career .332 hitter.
And just as some roles in the bullpen remain question marks, as the season goes on, Pierce should feel more comfortable stretching his starters to avoid the cascading effects of using so many inexperienced pitchers in relief.
Over the coming weeks, a lighter schedule should also provide more opportunities for those young pitchers in lower-leverage innings, starting with a four-game home series against BYU beginning Wednesday, midweek games against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Texas State, and Sam Houston State, and a weekend series against Houston.
If Texas can take care of business and improve during that stretch, the home series against South Carolina in mid-March will provide a much more meaningful barometer of how this season might unfold than the struggles in Arlington against elite opponents.