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Texas defeats USF, 4-3, on walk-off hit by Eric Kennedy

The Longhorns blew a three-run lead in the top of the ninth, but Kennedy came through in the bottom half with the biggest swing of the game.

Texas baseball

A pitch away from taking the first game in the Austin Super Regional from the South Florida Bulls, Texas Longhorns reliever Tanner Witt gave up a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth inning when Drew Brutcher hit a hanging curveball out over the right-field fence at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.

With the game tied at 3-3, the opening game of the super regional looked like it was headed into extra innings when Texas catcher Silas Ardoin rolled over on an outside 1-2 pitch to the South Florida shortstop. But Nick Gonzalez misplayed the ball and couldn’t handle the glove transfer, allowing Ardoin to reach base on the error.

Standing in the on-deck circle, left fielder Eric Kennedy and center fielder Mike Antico shared the desire to end the game right there,

Kennedy stepped to the plate looking for a fastball, so even though Brad Lord’s fastball was down, when it caught too much of the plate, Kennedy saw it cleanly from the hand and put a strong swing on it, driving it out to center field. Relatively inexperienced South Florida center fielder Roberto Pena, whose day to that point was already an adventure teasing potential disaster, was inexplicably playing too shallow and Kennedy was able to drive the ball over Pena’s head.

Ardoin scored from first and the Longhorns took the first game of the Austin Super Regional at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, 4-3, positioning themselves one win from a trip to Omaha and the College World Series.

“I can’t describe it — these are the kind of moments you dream about as a little kid,” Kennedy said after his walk-off hit.

Kennedy finished the game 2-for-3 with the double, two RBI, and a run scored, one of the few strong performances at the plate for a team that went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position then blew a late lead. Only the ninth-inning heroics from Kennedy averted the potential for an entirely different narrative of missed opportunities and a blown save.

Texas threatened early in typical fashion. Antico drew a walk, stole second, then advanced to third when second baseman Mitchell Daly hit South Florida starter Jack Jesiak on a ball up the middle. The South Florida started got ahead 0-2 against first baseman Zach Zubia, but he was able to hook a breaking ball low and outside to third base and score Antico as Daly reached safely when the throw took the Bulls second baseman off the bag.

In the second inning, the Longhorns added a second run with a two-out rally. Kennedy was initially ruled out at first base on a bouncer to the first baseman, but replay subsequently overturned the call and extended the inning for Texas. Antico took advantage, sending a low 1-0 pitch to the wall in left center to score Kennedy.

Ultimately, though, Jesiak’s command helped limit the damage early and the Longhorns were never able to truly get to the No. 1 starter for the Bulls.

Texas didn’t manage another hit until the seventh inning, in fact, a leadoff double by shortstop Trey Faltine. The freshman advanced to third on a fly out to right field by Ardoin and scored on a sacrifice fly by Kennedy on a 1-2 pitch, giving the Horns a 3-0 lead.

Longhorns ace Ty Madden left the game after 6.2 innings with nine strikeouts, four walks, and three hits over 107 pitches Through the key stretches in the middle of his appearance, Madden relied heavily on his slider — eight of his strikeouts came on the secondary pitch. By the seventh, Madden’s fastball was sitting in the low 90s and a walk to the pinch hitter Brutcher prompted his exit.

Without a strong feel for his fastball, Madden still put Texas in position to win even though he pitched backwards for much of the game, throwing the slider regularly early in the count. So when the projected first-round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft left the field at Disch-Falk for what was almost certainly the final time, a standing ovation accompanied Madden to the dugout. The obligatory curtain call followed.

But Witt wasn’t quite able to close out the game.

The curveball was a highly effective pitch for the freshman right-hander when he entered the game with two outs and runners on first and second in the seventh inning and throughout much of his outing. One fastball was all Witt needed to strike out Gonzalez on three pitches and retire the side.

After cruising through a 1-2-3 eighth inning, Witt gave up a leadoff home run in the ninth inning on a decent fastball low and away to Daniel Cantu, who just barely cleared the left-center fence. By retiring the next two batters, Witt looked poised to close the game before allowing a 2-1 double to right center by Gainesville Regional standout Jarrett Eaton and the game-tying home run to Brutcher on a 3-2 pitch, a hanging curveball on the inside part of the plate.

Fortunately for the Longhorns, the struggles with runners in scoring position and inability of Witt to close the game mattered less than Kennedy coming through after a frustrating season.

“It means the world having my teammates chase after me and the crowd get into it,” Kennedy said. “It’s amazing. These are the kind of opportunities you work for and you’ve just got to keep your head down and keep grinding. Baseball is a tough game — you’re going to have your ups and downs and luckily tonight was a big up.”

Texas will send right-hander Tristan Stevens to the mound on Sunday as the Horns attempt to close out the Austin Super Regional starting at 8 p.m. on ESPN2 or ESPNU.