In 2018, red-hot second baseman Kody Clemens hit .351 with 24 home runs as the Texas Longhorns surged towards the postseason with a sweep of the TCU Horned Frogs and advanced to the College World Series after thrilling wins in the Austin Regional and the Austin Super Regional.
But then a Longhorns team without much depth behind Clemens flamed out in Omaha with two straight losses as Texas was thrashed 11-5 by Arkansas and 6-1 by Florida. Amidst the quick exit, there was a sense that head coach David Pierce’s team reached its ceiling just by making the College World Series.
Three years later, the expectations are higher with Texas undefeated and on a five-game winning streak in the NCAA Tournament thanks to a much more balanced team that can win with power, small ball, defense, and pitching.
“I think it’s a lot different, honestly, from the staff to the team,” Pierce said of the comparison between the 2018 and 2021 teams. “I’ve been in Omaha — this will be my sixth time and my first time as a head coach was here in ‘18 — and I think then it was somewhat of a relief that, ‘Alright, we have an opportunity to do what Texas does. We’re going to Omaha.’ It was only year two, but that relief of knowing that we’ve accomplished what Texas does and that’s getting to Omaha.
“Now we have an opportunity to play for a national championship. I think that team really overachieved in ‘18 — I thought the pieces fell into place. We had a tremendous year by Kody (Clemens). We had a tremendous year by David (Hamilton). We pieced the pitching together. They did well.”
Thanks in large part to a pitching staff that ranks No. 1 nationally with a 2.89 ERA, Pierce said that the confidence of this team provides a different feeling in Omaha.
“I think going in there this year, there’s never been any thought of ‘Hey, we’ve made it to Omaha.’ The only thought that we’ve had is, ‘It’s the next step. We’re going to Omaha to win this thing,’” Pierce said.
Now, whether we’re good enough and the pieces fall into place, you got to have a little luck. You got to stay healthy, it’s just got to work out, you’ve got to calm your nerves, but there is definitely a different feeling with this team going into this ‘21 national championship run.”
There are a handful of players still on the team who remember the magical run to Omaha in 2018 and how quickly that faded into disappointment — first baseman Zach Zubia and catcher DJ Petrinsky were both key contributors on that team. Pitcher Tristan Stevens, now the No. 2 starter, made two starts that season, but didn’t appear in a game after April.
So it’s largely the core of players that Pierce added to the program since 2018 who will have the most impact on whether the Longhorns are able to fulfill the lofty expectations of competing for a national title this season. Even the older players in that group had no postseason experience before the Big 12 Tournament — junior right-hander Ty Madden, for instance, missed out on the trip to Oklahoma City in 2019 when Texas finished in last place in the Big 12, then had the promising 2020 season cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
Pierce pointed to the Team USA and Area Codes experience for some of the younger players as positives heading into the postseason. Even beyond the pre-Texas competitions, though, players like second baseman Mitchell Daly and relievers Tanner Witt and Aaron Nixon have never looked overwhelmed in any environments as freshmen this season and barely deserve that designation as the 2021 season reaches its climax in Omaha.
If there are any nerves initially, Pierce hopes that the ability to absorb the environment on Saturday and then through most of Sunday will help the Longhorns, as Texas will have the chance to watch all six of the other programs at the College World Series before taking the field against Mississippi State in the final game of the opening round.
As a head coach making his second appearance in Omaha, Pierce has made some adjustments to his approach as well. In an effort to keep his team from becoming comfortable or complacent, the Longhorns had a seven-inning scrimmage on Tuesday and haven’t backed off in practice as much as Pierce’s previous teams, including when he was an assistant at Rice.
The Texas head coach plans on sticking with designated hitter Ivan Melendez fourth in the batting order, too. Melendez has four three-strikeout games since the postseason began, totaling 14 strikeouts over the last eight contests. In particular, as opposing pitchers have focused on keeping the ball low, Melendez has at times expanded his strike zone, especially on breaking balls.
Pierce believes that a commitment to the lineup after the 2-0 loss to Texas A&M in College Station in late March marked a turning point for the team. Instead of players checking the lineup card every day and looking over their shoulders, they had a chance to get comfortable in the box.
That approach quickly paid off with Melendez. It eventually paid off with center fielder Mike Antico and left fielder Eric Kennedy.
Fortunately for the Horns, the team’s versatility and the way that TD Ameritrade Park plays compared to Rosenblatt Stadium should keep Texas from needing to rely on home runs from Melendez like the 2018 team relied on home runs from Clemens and, to a lesser extent, Petrinsky.
Of course, Pierce’s group does have some power, with three others players beyond Melendez posting nine or more home runs this season.
“I think we’ve just all noticed the difference from Rosenblatt to Ameritrade and it’s definitely a different game,” Pierce said. “I think it helps us because we have the ability to score and in other ways than the long ball. We’ve had some success with the long ball, but we’ve also hit more doubles than we’ve hit in previous years. We have the ability to do some things in the short game when we need to.”
Texas has 121 doubles this season, the most since the 2011 team had 122, and six players have 10 or more. Third baseman Cam Williams leads the way with 20, but shortstop Trey Faltine is second with 17 even though he spent most of two months hitting well below .250.
Like Antico and Kennedy, Faltine is locked in at the plate, raising his batting average nearly 30 points since the West Virginia series started. In fact, Faltine currently boasts an 11-game hitting streak, culminating in a 2-for-3 performance with two runs and three RBI last Sunday as Texas eliminated South Florida.
With Antico hitting .467 in the five NCAA Tournament games with 10 runs scored, 10 stolen bases, and nine walks, Texas has the ability to steal bases and advance runners with sacrifice bunts or hit-and-run opportunities at the top of the order.
Combine that with the strong pitching and excellent defense, particularly in the middle infield, and the Longhorns are in this College World Series to win it, not just enjoy a magical ride to Omaha.