A three-run home run by Texas Longhorns left fielder Eric Kennedy in the second inning and a career-high 5.2 innings in relief from right-hander Tanner Witt boosted the Horns to an 8-4 win over the Tennessee Volunteers in a Tuesday elimination game at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
“His performance was outstanding on the biggest stage when the team needed him more so than ever,” Texas head coach David Pierce said of Witt.
After striking out 21 times in a disappointing loss to Mississippi State on Sunday as Texas only managed four hits, including three in the ninth inning, the Horns bounced back at the plate with eight runs on seven hits and six walks with nine strikeouts. Kennedy’s home run flashed the team’s power and changes in the batting order helped make the small-ball approach noticeably missing against the Bulldogs an integral part of the win over the Volunteers as the Longhorns stole four bases.
Head coach David Pierce moved third baseman Cam Williams from the fifth spot in the order to the second, dropping second baseman Mitchell Daly to fifth. slotting shortstop Trey Faltine sixth, and sliding catcher Silas Ardoin to the ninth spot.
Williams adjusted by shortening his swing and focusing on handling the bat better, going 1-for-4 with two RBI as Daly looked comfortable behind designated hitter Ivan Melendez in a 2-for-3 performance with two runs and a stolen base.
The offensive contributions were necessary as starter Tristan Stevens struggled for a second straight outing, lasting a season-low 3.1 innings as the Tennessee hitters declined to offer at any low sinking fastballs or sliders, forcing him to elevate both pitches and taking advantage when he did.
Stevens gave up a single, walk, and a double to fall into a 1-0 hole as the Texas right-hander couldn’t get a good feel for his pitches or benefit from any offerings at pitches out of the zone. Another run scored on a groundout to first base before Stevens needed nine pitches to strike out Connor Pavolony looking. Several were good pitches to hit, including a flat fastball over the heart of the plate.
As the Longhorns have so often this season, they responded after the Volunteers took the lead.
Melendez led off the inning with a walk, Daly came through with a two-strike hit, and Faltine advanced the runners with a sacrifice bunt. When right fielder Douglas Hodo III thought he drew a walk on a pitch off the plate, he was punched out by the home plate umpire to end an at bat with an erratic strike zone, putting the pressure on Kennedy to take advantage. The junior worked a full count, then hit a rocket of a line drive over the right-field wall on a 96 mph fastball to take a 3-2 lead and continue his hot postseason.
Three of Kennedy’s four home runs have come in the last 11 games as he recovered from an extended slump.
Working with the lead, Stevens wasn’t able to settle in, allowing a leadoff single to start the third inning and issuing a walk to put runners on first and second. A bunt loaded the bases when Williams wasn’t aggressive going after the ball, forcing Stevens to field it with no play anywhere.
Then the game swung in favor of the Longhorns thanks to some excellent defense. On a sharply-hit ball to third, Williams made a strong play, throwing home to get the lead runner. Catcher Silas Ardoin made an even better play picking the throw from Williams, keeping his foot on the plate, and delivering a strike to first to finish the double play. A flyout to center ended the inning as Stevens escaped a huge jam just as it looked like his day might end early.
Pierce said he told Ardoin that his pick in the third inning was one of the best plays he’s ever seen given the situation. He called it the play of the game. #HookEm— Dustin McComas (@DMcComasOB) June 22, 2021
In a familiar scene, center fielder Mike Antico walked to lead off the bottom of the inning and stole his 11th base of the NCAA Tournament — the most by any player in the nation over the last 15 tournaments — taking third on the poor throw. With no outs, Williams came through with a groundout to second base to score Antico and extend the lead to two runs.
In the fourth, a walk came back to haunt Stevens and eventually drive him from the game. A hit-and-run advanced Beck to third and a single through the left side drove Beck home with one out to bring up the top of the Tennessee batting order.
Stevens exited with runners on first and second and one out after allowing six hits and three walks over 3.1 innings as right-hander Tanner Witt came on in relief. On a curveball from Witt that stayed up in the zone, Tennessee leadoff hitter Liam Spence stayed back on it and singled into center field to tie the game at 4-4.
With the Volunteers still threatening, the defense came up big once again for the Longhorns with Daly ranging far to his right and getting the ball quickly to second base, where Faltine used his arm strength to get the runner at first, a call upheld on review.
Once again, Texas responded.
Daly drew a walk and stole second as Hodo earned another. With two outs and facing a 1-2 count, Silas Ardoin took an opposite-field approach with a fastball that caught more of the plate than intended and lined it into the right-center gap, scoring Daly and Hodo. The play was close at the plate — Hodo was arguably out — but video review confirmed the safe call on the field as the Longhorns took a 6-4 lead.
Williams took advantage by jumping on the first pitch that he saw, hitting a line drive to left center to score Ardoin.
In the sixth, Texas added another run when Kennedy singled, advanced to second on a groundout, took third by goading the catcher into throwing behind him, then scored on a wild pitch.
For the final 5.2 innings, the game belonged to Witt in an incredibly impressive performance by the freshman All-American.
Blasting past his previous career highs of 3.1 innings pitched and 56 pitches, Witt battled through the ninth inning and finished with 78 pitches. All three pitches were effective for Witt — his fastball that reached 94 miles per hour with a high spin rate, a sharp curveball, and an effective changeup. Even when Witt tired in the ninth inning, he was able to close out the game with pure determination and competitiveness having allowed only three hits with two strikeouts and zero walks.
“I love that big stage and the big atmosphere. I feel like I only get better in those situations because that’s what I live for,” Witt said after the game.
Witt’s heroics mean that the Longhorns advance to another elimination game having only used two pitchers in relief — Witt and likely Thursday starter Pete Hansen — leaving Cole Quintanilla and Aaron Nixon fresh for Thursday’s game. After Stevens only threw 58 pitches, he could be available if Texas is able to win another game.
“To be in the losers bracket and 1-1, we’re in pretty good shape with our arms right now,” Pierce said.
Texas will face the loser of the Tuesday evening game between Mississippi State and Virginia on Thursday at 6 p.m. Central on ESPN2.