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Confident Texas two wins away from College World Series appearance

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The Horns fixed the hitting issues from Oklahoma City and arguably possess the nation’s best pitching staff.

Pete Hansen
Texas baseball

FFPete Hansen isn’t shy about his belief in the No. 2 national seed Texas Longhorns.

South Florida, the No. 4 seed in the Gainesville Regional, is the only team that stands between Texas and a 37th appearance in the College World Series after an unlikely run through the AAC Tournament and then past Florida, Miami, and South Alabama.

“At the end of the year, I think we’re going to show everyone who we really are — and that’s the No. 1 team in the nation,” Hansen said on Sunday.

With No. 1 national seed Arkansas needing a late rally in the Fayetteville Regional to beat Nebraska while Texas went undefeated in the Austin Regional by outscoring its three opponents 33-5, the Longhorns certainly have a case for that claim. The plus-28 margin over those three games was the most for Texas in the new tournament format since the national championship season in 2005 (plus-32).

The pitching staff leads the way for the Longhorns — Texas enters the Super Regional round with the best staff ERA in the country at 2.87 by passing Fairfield during the Austin Regional. In WHIP, the Horns rank No. 3 at 1.13.

Hansen himself has been a big part of the success on the mound for head coach David Pierce’s team, ranking No. 10 nationally in ERA at 1.84 following the best performance of his career in the Austin Regional final against Fairfield on Sunday. Hansen pitched 6.2 innings with a career-high 13 strikeouts as he scattered six hits and allowed one earned run.

An adjustment to Hansen’s slider — he was trying to make it look like his fastball by getting out in front on it — made it a particularly devastating pitch. Meanwhile, his fastball was up into the high 80s for one of the first times since last season thanks to Hansen’s efforts during the season to get himself into the best shape of his life. The California product also throws a changeup at 86 or 87 miles per hour that might more accurately be described as a power sinker because the velocity nearly matches his fastball.

Pierce was particularly impressed with Hansen’s poise in his first NCAA Tournament appearance in front of a huge crowd. The crowd at UFCU Disch-Falk Field was impressed, too, giving Hansen a standing ovation and then demanding a curtain call from the second-year freshman.

“I mean, that was by far the coolest experience I’ve been a part of, not even just walking off, but just seeing the Dish packed — it was electric yesterday and I was very excited to see it today and pitch in it,” Hansen said on Sunday. “But I think that is by far the coolest thing I’ve been a part of is just seeing the Longhorn faithful out in numbers.”

Hansen is just one piece of a starting rotation that also features Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Ty Madden and the steady, reliably strike-throwing Tristan Stevens.

“I think we’ve got the best 1-2-3 punch in the nation and now every time these guys go out there it’s magic, honestly,” Hansen said.

In the bullpen, Tanner Witt went three strong innings in his first NCAA Tournament appearance and Cole Quintanilla hit 98 miles per hour with his fastball against Fairfield, so he’s peaking at the right time for the Longhorns. But perhaps that’s not fair to Quintanilla, who has been excellent all season long — he leads the team with a 1.38 ERA thanks to five runs allowed in 32.3 innings. Lucas Gordon is an option from the left side with a 3.32 ERA and 1.11 WHIP.

The pitching staff receives help from an offense that can score in different ways.

Center fielder Mike Antico ranks third nationally in stolen bases with 36 on the season, eighth on the school’s all-time single-season list and second behind Tim Moss (40) in the last 20 years. With his .433 on-base percentage and second baseman Mitchell Daly’s ability to handle the bat behind him, Antico believes in his ability to set the table early for Texas to win games.

“I feel like if I can get on and score in that first inning, the game is as good as ours at that point,” Antico said.

Texas is also No. 4 nationally in walks drawn, showing patience at the plate and a command of the strike zone that not only elevates pitch counts for opponents, but also makes them miserable on the mound, according to Pierce. The Longhorns head coach would still like for his team to be more aggressive at times, but it’s also difficult to question the players when they stick with their approach at the plate. Six starters have an on-base percentage of .413 or better.

When the team needs some power, six of the nine starters have 10 or more doubles on the season and four have nine or more home runs, led by 12 from designated hitter Ivan Melendez, who hit a home run and had three total hits over the weekend after struggling with nine strikeouts in three games in the Big 12 Tournament.

The heartening overall performance in the Austin Regional represented a bounce back for the entire team following four largely disappointing games in Oklahoma City the previous week.

“We were talking and I feel like whatever happened in OKC definitely needed to happen — I think we needed that fire to be lit underneath us again and so we came in with a chip on our shoulder,” Antico said of the Austin Regional. “I don’t think we were ever in trouble at all this weekend, so we took the lead and just ran with it throughout the whole weekend.”

Right-handed reliever Aaron Nixon was one of the individual players who recovered from a bad performance in Oklahoma City. In an elimination game against Oklahoma State to play for a trip to the finals, Nixon took loss after allowing two walks and the game-winning run for the Cowboys. In an inning against Fairfield, Nixon got back on track with a scoreless inning.

“Nixon is built so right — he’s tougher than nails,” Pierce said. “He looks like Quadzilla. He is Quadzilla. He acts like Quadzilla.”

After striking out 47 times and only hitting .179 in the Big 12 Tournament, Pierce wanted his team to refocus on a commitment to hitting line drives up the middle of the field by focusing on pitch selection and seeing the ball deep. The Texas payers heeded that wake-up call, cutting the strikeouts to 21 over three games and hitting .343 in the Austin Regional with six doubles and three home runs. Remaining patient at the plate, the Longhorns drew 24 walks, including 11 against Fairfield.

Perhaps striking out against good pitching will derail this Longhorns team at some point, whether it’s this weekend or in the College World Series, but regardless of what happens, the end result is unlikely to take away from the affection that Pierce feels for this group.

“This team is unbelievable. I could get choked up about this team because they listen, they’re very coachable, they play for each other, they’re unselfish. When people tell me they love our energy, when people tell me how unselfish our players look, it’s true, it’s real. They just keep doing it,” Pierce said.

“Guys like Zach Zubia have such a great team spirit. You bring in a guy like Mike Antico and we have a bunch of young kids out there playing — I’m just impressed with them. I told them in the team meeting that they inspire me. They make me better. They make me want to come to the ballpark and do everything I can to help them.”

Texas faces South Florida in the Austin Super Regional opener at 8 p.m. Central on Saturday on ESPNU. All-session tickets are sold out, but a limited number of single-game tickets will go on sale prior to each game.