After the Texas Longhorns lost the three opening games to SEC powers in the State Farm College Baseball showdown to start the season, head coach David Pierce met with the team in the tunnel.
“We’re gonna remember this meeting,” Pierce said at the time. “We’re going to remember how we started and every single day where we felt like we’d get it figured out, we’re gonna think about that.”
Those struggles were clearly at the front of the minds for Texas players as they completed a three-game sweep of South Carolina, which entered the weekend undefeated and returned to Columbia dropped from No. 10 to No. 16 nationally in the Division I Baseball rankings as Texas moved up to No. 10.
For Pierce, the biggest contributor to the three wins at UFCU Disch-Falk Field was consistency in all phases of the game.
“Oh, what a great weekend — we had a team that went out and played consistent baseball, we had some timely hits and outstanding pitching against a very good hitting team and just really proud of our players,” Pierce said.
South Carolina entered the game as one of the best hitting teams in the country, marking a significant challenge for Texas. On Friday, ace Ty Madden predictably pitched well, but some of the other pitching performances were important moving forward. Saturday starter, right-hander Tristan Stevens, had his sinking fastball working to set up his slider, helping him get out of two jams and pitch through the sixth inning finally.
Stevens had to work out of a difficult jam in the third inning, giving up a single and a double to put runners on second and third with no outs. But Stevens rose to the moment, handling the first out himself and then inducing an inning-ending double play after walking South Carolina’s best hitter, Wes Clarke, to load the bases.
In the fifth, Stevens had to work past some miscues from third baseman Cam Williams. The first baserunner reached on an error and Williams was unable to come up with a sharply-hit ball that put runners on first and third with one out. Again, Stevens responded, striking out the final two hitters to retire the side, including Clarke to end the inning.
“I stepped off the mound, and I kind of realized to myself, this is something that I’m used to,” Stevens said. “I had to tell myself, ‘Hey, I’ve been in this situation before. I know how to get out of it. And I just got to make my pitches.’ So I regrouped — I know that that was their best hitter up, but I knew that if I challenge him with my best stuff, then he’d have to hit it. And that slider was definitely, I believe, one of my best ones.”
After Stevens energized the team with his big pitch in the fifth inning, the Texas bats came through with two big swings providing some margin for the Longhorns in the previously scoreless game as designated hitter Peyton Powell hit an opposite-field home run that barely cleared the left-field fence and second baseman Mitchell Daly crushed one as well.
Powell. Daly. Dingers. #HookEm | @peytonpowell01 x @mitchdaly19 pic.twitter.com/tynpxgkgRC— Texas Baseball (@TexasBaseball) March 13, 2021
Stevens overcame another big hurdle in the sixth inning, during which he’s struggled this season, allowing baserunners and not getting much help from the bullpen after departing. Against South Carolina, though, with a double play erasing a leadoff single and a lineout to second baseman Mitchell Daly, made it through the inning.
After allowing five hits and striking out five batters with one walk through six innings, Stevens departed and right-hander Palmer Wenzel was able to make the lead stand with two hits over three innings thanks to his sidearm, sinking fastball drawing six groundouts.
On Sunday, the Texas bats got going with consistent play through the first four innings, during which the Horns scored one in the first, one in the second, two in the third, and four in the fourth.
Doubles by catcher DJ Petrinsky and designated hitter Ivan Melendez produced three runs and three more singles, by first baseman Zach Zubia, third baseman Cam Williams, and shortstop Trey Faltine, scored three more runs.
“I think we’re starting to get the bats going,” Petrinsky said. “I was trying to play as a team and I think we definitely made some strides.”
Clearly, Madden and Stevens proved that Texas can win against lineups with the quality of South Carolina, but winning in the postseason — and getting a favorable postseason seeding — often means pitchers competing when they don’t have their best stuff. On Sunday, that’s what right-hander Kolby Kubichek did.
Good coaches also have an ability to know when their pitchers are confident enough to make great pitches in difficult situations. In the fourth inning, after Kubichek gave up a double and a walk to put runners on first and second with one out and Clarke stepping to the plate, Pierce faced just such a situation as he headed to the mound.
“Well, as you guys know, when I walk out of the dugout, they’re coming out of the game most of the time,” said Pierce. “Some guys are very deliberate of looking you in the eye and saying, ‘Coach, alright, I know what I’m gonna do — I’m gonna beat him up inside, I’ve got this.’ And he said those right things, and I felt really comfortable with that matchup, more so than I did with Witt in the inning.
“And so, if he were ready to hand me the ball at the time, then we’re going to Witt. But I liked his demeanor of how he approached me. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Coach, I can beat him right here.’ And then I just wanted to reassure him that if we go away it’ll be strictly to influence it, I mean really expand and just be a way down. He did an awesome job.”
Clarke struck out swinging and Kubichek made it through the inning. The Bryan product only made it through four innings, allowing five hits and two runs after hitting three batters and giving up two walks, but helped Texas maintain its lead.
Right-hander Tanner Witt came on to pitch three innings with six strikeouts and a single run allowed before right-handers Cole Quintanilla and Aaron Nixon finished the game. Nixon struggled some in the ninth allowing two runs, but was able to make the pitch he needed to strand two baserunners and end the game.
Texas returns to the Disch on Tuesday for a 6:30 p.m. Central game on Longhorn Network against UTRGV.