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Texas set for rematch against Mississippi State to open College World Series

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The Longhorns have been preparing for this moment since losing the season opener to the Bulldogs.

Texas baseball

Remember Arlington.

For the last 114 days, the No. 2 national seed Texas Longhorns have worked tirelessly following a season-opening 8-3 loss to the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown.

By the end of the weekend, the Longhorns were 0-3 against highly-rated SEC opponents in Arlington, a disappointing start to a promising season that forced Texas get better quickly.

Next Sunday, Texas has a chance to exact some revenge on Mississippi State at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha to open the College World Series at 6 p.m. Central on ESPN2.

The Bulldogs advanced on Monday with an 11-7 win in the third game of the Starkville Super Regional.

For the Horns, the minimum five games to reach the College World Series was all head coach David Pierce’s streaking team needed to advance past the Austin Regional and defeat South Florida in the Austin Super Regional.

Make no mistake, however — the lessons from Arlington are still at the front of the mind for these Longhorns.

“We learned that whenever we get to the biggest stage, which is Omaha, that these are the teams that you’re gonna have to beat,” first baseman Zach Zubia said after the Super Regional “And so every day we were preparing to beat those teams, because that’s the bar whenever you get to Omaha.”

Zubia refused to make excuses for the loss to Mississippi State, but there’s no doubt that Winter Storm Uri impacted how Texas prepared for the season and contributed to the opening defeat.

Right-hander Ty Madden struggled through four innings in his shortest start of the season, allowing four runs (three earned) on four hits with five strikeouts and three walks. In the second inning, Madden allowed four straight baserunners and two runs after getting two outs to start the frame, then gave up a home run and unearned run in the fourth as the Longhorns got into an early hole.

The offense was never able to climb out of it with 18 strikeouts, but this isn’t quite the same lineup that the Bulldogs faced nearly four months ago.

Graduate transfer center fielder Mike Antico has settled in, hitting. 467 in the five NCAA Tournament games with 10 runs scored, 10 stolen bases, and nine walks. Taking 60 walks this season has put tremendous pressure on opposing pitching staffs, but Antico didn’t truly find a rhythm until midway through conference play.

Behind the St. John’s transfer, Mitchell Daly has taken over at second base and is tied for the team lead in batting average at .321. His ability to handle the bat and avoid strikeouts while reaching base consistently has allowed Pierce to move left fielder Eric Kennedy down in the batting order as he struggled for parts of the season.

Kennedy is playing well right now, though, hitting .333 in the NCAA Tournament, including Saturday’s walk-off double in the ninth inning.

Designated hitter Ivan Melendez, who homered against Mississippi State in his Texas debut, is struggling at the plate with strikeouts, but is still a more dangerous hitter than opposing staffs knew when he opened the season. If he can get back on track, the Horns have some upside they haven’t fully tapped into yet during the postseason.

Outfielder Tanner Allen leads the way for the Bulldogs, entering Monday’s game with a .390 batting average and nine home runs. With 13 home runs on the season, catcher Logan Tanner leads Mississippi State, which has 68 home runs in 2021.

The pitching staff is holding opponents to a .223 batting average, although Texas unfortunately won’t have a chance to exploit the lack of a good third starter, at least on Sunday.

The Longhorns could see left-hander Christian MacLeod on the mound — he started the opener against Texas and served as the Friday starter for Mississippi State. He’s 6-5 with a 4.24 ERA and strikes out opponents at a high rate, moving down 113 batters in 80.2 innings.

In Arlington, right-hander Landon Sims was phenomenal against Texas, earning the win by striking out 10 over four scoreless innings. His ERA sits at 1.28 on the season, so getting into the Bulldogs bullpen early on Sunday may not be a big advantage unless the Longhorns drive the starter from the game by taking a lead.

Unlike the 2018 team, which overachieved to make it to the College World Series, this Texas team seems like it has the right pieces to win games in Omaha, but any deep run will likely need to start with a Sunday victory in the grudge match against Mississippi State to finally exorcise those Arlington demons once and for all.