Freshman right-hander Aaron Nixon was excellent through 2.1 innings of relief for the No. 19 Texas Longhorns, striking out five Houston Cougars batters, but a poorly-located changeup against Houston right fielder Tyler Bielemawicz resulted in a walk-off home run and a 3-2 defeat for Texas in 11 innings on Saturday.
Beyond a run credited to starter Tristan Stevens after graduate transfer Palmer Wenzel was unable to work past a two-out double in the sixth inning, the bullpen was able to keep the Longhorns in the game with 4.2 innings of strong work led by Nixon and fellow freshman right-hander Tanner Witt, who walked two and allowed two hits over 2.1 innings.
Nixon sat from 92 to 94 mph with his fastball with a good changeup as the McAllen product has quickly emerged as a potentially key piece of the Longhorns bullpen moving forward — the home run marked the first run allowed by Nixon in 4.1 innings pitched so far in his career.
In the end, the loss wasn’t on the pitching staff as Texas simply couldn’t come through at the plate, striking out 13 times, recording only two hits against the Houston bullpen in 5.2 innings, and leaving 12 runners on base.
The top of the order was the primary culprit — first baseman Zach Zubia left three runners on base in his 0-for-5 performance with two strikeouts while center fielder Mike Antico, designated hitter Douglas Hodo III, and third baseman Cam Williams all left two runners on base. Williams did manage two walks, but also struck out three times as Texas missed his extra-base power in the game.
For Zubia some of the struggles were just bad luck. In the first inning, he hit a foul ball with home-run distance and also hit another pitch well to deep right-center field that was caught near the wall.
The inability to get clutch hits ruined a gritty performance from Stevens, who entered the game with a 5.91 ERA that misconstrued how well he pitched in his first two starts before encountering trouble in the sixth inning and failing to receive any help from the bullpen in both outings.
Two singles sandwiched around a walk scored the game’s first run for Houston in the top of the second inning as Stevens struggled with his control — the walk and the second single came with two outs with light-hitting Cougars catcher Kyle Lovelace driving in the run. Stevens then walked the bases loaded on four pitches, but limited the damage thanks to an inning-ending fielder’s choice to the shortstop.
With the pitch count ballooning for Stevens, he settled into an efficient groove by retiring the next 12 batters he faced to extend his outing, including the first two batters of that all-important sixth inning as he got some help from his defense thanks to a nice sliding, shoestring catch by Antico.
But then Stevens allowed a double, only the third hit of the game for the Cougars, on a two-strike pitch after shaking off the initial signal.
Once again, the bullpen let Stevens down, this time Wenzel, whose first pitch was sent to the wall in right field for a triple. After walking the second batter he faced, Wenzel exited in favor of Witt. Facing diminutive second baseman Brad Burckel, Witt quickly got ahead with a fastball and a curveball for strikes before Burckel nearly left Schroeder Field with his fourth opposite-field home run of the season, but didn’t didn’t quite get enough of it in flying out to the warning track.
Witt got into some two-out trouble in the seventh after allowing a walk and a single, then escaped without allowing a run when Todd tracked down a popup in foul territory. The eighth was a challenge for the talented freshman, too, as a single, intentional walk, and error by Faltine loaded the bases. Houston leadoff hitter Brandon Uhse couldn’t handle Witt’s stuff, however, striking out swinging.
Nixon carved through the Cougars lineup with five swinging strikeouts until the game-ending mistake in the 11th.
At the plate, the Longhorns finally provided Stevens some run support in the fifth inning. Left fielder Eric Kennedy led off with a double, but it looked like the opportunity might fall by the wayside when second baseman Mitchell Daly grounded out to the pitcher and Antico flied out to left field. After neither managed to advance Kennedy, Hodo hit an infield single and right fielder Austin Todd came through with a single through the left side of the Houston infield to score Kennedy and tie the game. Williams worked a full count, but struck out to end the threat and strand two baserunners.
The game slowed down in the sixth inning after a one-out double by Texas shortstop Trey Faltine, his second of the game, chasing Houston starter Ben Spears. After catcher DJ Petrinsky battled for a 10-pitch walk, the Cougars made another pitching change to match up with the left-hander Kennedy. A perfectly-placed safety squeeze from Kennedy scored Faltine from third and produced a hit for the Longhorns left fielder thanks to his speed down the line.
There just wasn’t enough execution like that for the Longhorns.
First pitch for the Sunday rubber match is at 1:30 p.m. Central on ESPN+ with right-hander Kolby Kubichek taking the mound for Texas.