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Mike Antico’s big night helps No. 6 Texas beat No. 3 TCU, 5-4

The St. John’s transfer turned in a big performance at the plate and made a key diving catch in the sixth inning.

Texas baseball

Mike Antico transferred to test himself in big games.

In the biggest game of the season for the No. 6 Texas Longhorns, the center fielder from New Jersey came through with a huge performance, including by setting the tone on the first pitch, doubling down the line, and providing some of the most important winning plays for the Longhorns (37-11, 14-5) in a 5-4 win against the No. 3 TCU Horned Frogs (33-11, 15-4) in front of a vocal crowd in Fort Worth on Friday.

Antico scored on that double thanks to a triple from first baseman Zach Zubia, then again on a two-out single from Zubia in the sixth after drawing a walk. In the bottom half the inning, Antico saved at least one run on a sinking liner in left-center field to retire the side with runners on first and second.

With the game tied at four in the eighth inning, Antico homered on a line drive just over the right-field fence with two outs.

Antico finished 2-for-4 with three runs scored, the leadoff double, the go-ahead home run late, and the catch that helped ensure a chance to win. Big time.

Errors early in the first inning helped extend Texas starter Ty Madden early and resulted in a quick run after Madden retired the first two TCU batters. Getting out of the sixth inning was a struggle for the Longhorns ace, as the Horned Frogs scored a run to cut it to 4-3. A lineout to end the inning chased Madden from the game after allowing three runs (two earned) on five hits with five strikeouts and three walks on 107 pitches.

With Texas missing opportunities earlier in the game to make situational plays at the plate to score more runs, the final margin few to the Longhorns bullpen and its two star freshmen.

Left-hander Lucas Gordon came in for Madden in the seventh, but after Tuesday’s promising start against Texas State and other strong appearances in recent games, Gordon left having allowed two hits to the two batters he faced, with a wild pitch ending his outing with runners on second and third.

So right-hander Tanner Witt entered the game with runners on second and third, no outs, and facing a 2-1 count. Witt retired the first batter on a sacrifice fly that tied the game, but limited the damage by striking out the next two batters swinging — his fastball was jumping and his curveball was a sharp pitch.

Witt even mixed in an effective changeup against TCU left-handers and survived the eighth inning after allowing two one-out singles.

Then Texas head coach David Pierce made two questionable decisions.

With two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the ninth, left fielder Eric Kennedy came to the plate. Kennedy has struggled in recent weeks as a player who relies on infield singles, especially bunt singles, a handful of them in sacrifice situations. So it wasn’t entirely surprising to see Kennedy try a drag punt for a base hit on the first pitch, but it was also the first pitch from a new reliever high and out of the zone. Kennedy didn’t place the bunt well and was thrown out with relative ease given his speed.

Instead of allowing closer Aaron Nixon to record the three outs in the ninth inning, Pierce stuck with Witt, who used 11 pitches in allowing a full-count walk and a 2-2 single, forcing NIxon to enter the game with runners on first and second with no outs.

Relying heavily on his plus slider, Nixon struck out the first batter on three pitches, but the runners moved to second and third with one out when catcher Silas Ardoin couldn’t handle a low slider ruled a wild pitch. Nixon dug in to strike out Phillip Sikes on a 1-2 slider — a huge out since Sikes entered the game hitting .368 with eight home runs. Sticking with the slider, Nixon got ahead of the next batter and induced a lazy fly to left field to end the game.

In a tough environment, the performances by Witt and Nixon were remarkable — if Texas is going to make a postseason runs, those two will form the two key end-of-game options for Pierce. On Friday, in the season’s biggest game, they came through in the toughest road environment they’ve faced in their brief college careers.

They matched the moment. So did Antico, and now the Longhorns are back within a game of the Horned Frogs in the Big 12 race with Saturday’s key contest at 2 p.m. Central on ESPNU.