On an unseasonably cool day in Austin with the wind blowing in and gusting up to 20 miles an hour, some well-hit balls for the No. 3 Texas Longhorns were kept in the park, including three by third baseman Cam Williams, but the offense came through late with enough runs to win as right-hander Tristan Stevens pitched extraordinarily well in the 3-1 victory over the Abilene Christian Wildcats on Saturday at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.
The 12th straight win for the Longhorns was much more difficult than the 18-0 stomping put on the Wildcats on Friday, but Texas head coach David Pierce expected that coming into the game.
“Well, I just think that anybody that understands this game should have expected a close game,” Pierce said. “Abilene Christian got humiliated yesterday — and we’ve all been there — so they could have responded by laying down or they could come back in, take a clean slate, play a game, and give it their best.”
Abilene Christian right-hander Genner Cervantes gave the Wildcats a chance by pitching away with his fastball and coming back with an effective breaking ball, helping him last 5.1 innings with only one earned run even though he gave up four hits and five walks.
Texas finally forced Cervantes from the game in the fifth inning when good approaches at the plate by first baseman Zach Zubia and designated hitter Ivan Melendez finally paid off with both hitting singles through the right side of the infield. Cervantes couldn’t reestablish his control at that point, walking catcher Silas Ardoin and right fielder Douglas Hodo III on nine pitches, resulting in the first Texas run. However, the Longhorns left the bases loaded after right fielder Eric Kennedy struck out swinging and Williams flied out to left field.
In the seventh, Texas was able to execute well enough to score another run. Shortstop Trey Faltine worked a full-count walk and although center fielder Mike Antico wasn’t able to get his bunt down, popping it up to the pitcher, second baseman Mitchell Daly moved Faltine to second on a hit and run, sacrificing his at bat to put Faltine in scoring position even though he went into that plate appearance with two hits. Once again, Zubia didn’t try to do too much in his at bat, scoring Faltine with a single up the middle.
The Horns chipped away again in the eighth with a one-out bunt single by Kennedy, who scored when Williams finally barreled up a pitch with a double to left field that scored Kennedy.
With right-hander Tanner Witt on the mound in the eighth inning, a big-time defensive play from Antico, Faltine, and Williams helped maintain the lead. On a hard-hit ball to deep center field that carried over Antico’s head, the center fielder was able to field the ball cleanly and made a strong throw to Faltine, whose relay was slightly offline, but still in time to allow Williams a chance to make a diving tag at third to end the inning.
It was the only hit allowed by Witt over his 2.0 innings of work as the freshman right-hander struck out two batters.
The real story, though, was the pitching of Stevens, who made his third straight high-level start. As his arm strength has increased during the season, he’s been able to avoid the sixth-inning issues that plagued him early in the year. But arm strength doesn’t equal command and Stevens has been impeccable in that regard. In fact, with the 26 batters faced over 7.0 innings on Saturday, Stevens has now faced 87 hitters without allowing a walk, a stretch of 24.2 innings that dates back to his March 27 start against Oklahoma.
“For me it’s kind of staying even keel — it’s more of a mindset more than just kind of how I feel. It’s just not to get too high or too low and not let one pitch or one at bat or one hit or anything affect me and just take it one pitch at a time and that’s been working,” Stevens said.
As a subset of the control that Stevens shows, his ability to manipulate his pitches and expand his arsenal have been key to his success — he typically throws a sinking fastball, but he can also cut it into hitters. His slider isn’t a devastating, wipeout pitch like it often is for ace Ty Madden on Friday, but it does get swings and misses. Stevens has also paired his fastballs more often with a changeup down and away that he didn’t throw when working out of the bullpen last year.
In fact, Stevens didn’t even plan on starting this season when Texas went through fall workouts, but with left-hander Pete Hansen still working his arm back into shape, Stevens has taken over the Saturday role and hasn’t looked back with his expanded arsenal.
“Into the fall having me being a starter wasn’t something that crossed my mind,” Stevens said. “I kind of took advantage of the opportunity, but now that my arm’s getting a little more into shape and I’m getting used to the mindset and the mentality that’s taken, it’s just going out and repeating it.”
Stevens reflected on a Zoom call the team had with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson last summer on not letting things you can’t control affect on-field or off-field performance helping his mindset on the mound.
It’s not just Stevens though — the entire Texas team has clearly taken that message to heart, putting in extra time in all aspects of the game.
“Our guys were in the cage at 10 o’clock this morning taking reps, so they’re putting their time in,” Pierce said. “I think they put the time in because they’ve seen the result and then they like being at the park, they really do, and it’s very rewarding as a coach.”
Texas has a chance to sweep the series and win a 13th straight game on Sunday as right-hander Kolby Kubichek (4-2, 2.63) takes the mound against right-hander Spencer Chirpich (3-2, 5.18) at 1 p.m. on Longhorn Network.