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Fatigued No. 3 Texas battles past Incarnate Word in 5-3 win

As a mantra, “just win” doesn’t fully describe what the Longhorns accomplished in a closer-than-expected midweek win.

A doubleheader on Saturday helped the No. 3 Texas Longhorns extend its winning streak to 16 games. A seven-hour bus ride back from Stillwater followed the Sunday loss against the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

A large number of players then received their second shot of the vaccine on Monday, with head coach David Pierce estimating that 95 percent of the team is now fully vaccinated as program management incentives caused the staff to ask some players to delay that second shot.

So Tuesday’s midweek game against Incarnate Word was about winning first, but it was also about managing a fatigued team facing a huge conference series at home against Texas Tech this weekend.

The Longhorns won, 5-3, in an ugly performance that achieved more goals than just avoiding the first midweek loss of the season.

“I thought we were fatigued — we looked fatigued — but we did a nice job of just figuring out how to win the game,” Pierce said.

After typical midweek starter Pete Hansen replaced Sunday starter Kolby Kubichek against Oklahoma State on Sunday in an effort to salvage a poor start and sweep the series, Hansen threw 39 pitches in two innings. He’s now available to match up on Friday against Texas Tech or extend himself if a starter falters as Pierce worries more about the series against the Red Raiders than piecing together another midweek game.

With Hansen not available to start, Pierce called on right-hander Justin Eckhardt against the Cardinals. Eckhardt pitched poorly, allowing a two-run home run in the first inning and three runs total in facing eight batters and retiring four before leaving the game.

The Longhorns needed 23 outs from the bullpen as a result and were able to get them without allowing any more runs.

Left-hander Lucas Gordon worked 1.2 innings with two strikeouts in another strong appearance, but the big story was right-hander Drew Shifflet showing off his lowered arm slot in pitching 3.2 innings with three hits allowed.

“I think that was a big step today,” Pierce said. “I mean we’ve seen really short outings, but today was a big step when the game was close. He did a nice job of not only keeping us in the game, but not allowing them to score anything.”

Pierce also noted some poor luck on hard-hit balls in play, including a line drive by designated hitter Ivan Melendez to the left fielder playing extremely deep and second baseman Mitchell Daly hitting two balls well at both Incarnate Word middle infielders. First baseman Zach Zubia had a two-run home run stolen by an impressive catch at the cutout wall in left field.

“It was one of those games we just had to fight through,” Pierce said.

With those difficulties, the patience and speed of center fielder Mike Antico played key roles in the win. Antico walked on four pitches with two outs in the second inning and scored with his speed when second baseman Mitchell Daly doubled down the left-field line.

In the sixth, Antico walked again and stole second, advancing to third on a groundout by Daly and then scoring the go-ahead run on a single by Zubia to break a 3-3 tie.

“The biggest reason why he’s probably having so much success right now is he’s seeing the ball so much better and you can see that by drawing the walks and getting deeper into counts,” Pierce said.

Antico has drawn 11 walks in the last six games.

Beyond the pitching staff, Pierce also had to manage other aspects of Tuesday’s lineup.

Third baseman Cam Williams started after missing four straight games, but left in the fourth inning after a single because Pierce thought he was still hobbling after a knee contusion that hasn’t responded to treatment as well as anticipated — there’s still too much swelling and not enough blood flow despite the best efforts of the training staff. Pierce called Williams questionable for the Texas Tech series.

Left fielder Eric Kennedy didn’t start with a left-handed pitcher starting for Incarnate Word in the midst of his 0-for-18 streak that he broke pinch hitting for Dylan Campbell by using a drag bunt for his 22nd infield single and 12th bunt single of the season.

First pitch of the crucial Texas Tech series is at 7 p.m. Central Friday on Longhorn Network.