Facing a third straight elimination game, the Texas Longhorns square off against the Mississippi State Bulldogs for a third time this season and a second time at the College World Series on Friday at 6 p.m. on ESPN.
The Longhorns have lost each contest against the Bulldogs, including a 2-1 defeat on Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park marred by a record-setting 21 strikeouts, 15 by Mississippi State ace Will Bednar. To advance to the championship series, Texas needs wins on Friday and Saturday.
Over the last two games, the Horns have reduced their number of strikeouts to 21 total with first baseman Zach Zubia and designated hitter Ivan Melendez finally showing signs of breaking out of extended slumps with big hits against the Cavaliers.
After three hits against Southern, Zubia walked to the plate in the ninth inning with three hits in his previous 29 at bats, a .103 batting average. With 47 walks and a .414 on-base percentage this season, Zubia often frustrates his head coach by taking good pitches to hit early in the count. So Pierce said he doesn’t talk to Zubia during games to avoid negatively impacting his approach at the plate.
Against Virginia, though, Pierce broke his own rule in effort to build Zubia up, reminding the big slugger that he’s been in the three hole since March for a reason and that he’s one of the best hitters on the team.
Zubia laid off a good breaking ball at 2-2 to work it full. Then, instead of looking for a specific pitch, Zubia said he was just trying to react and put a good swing on it with two outs and the bases loaded.
Virignia pitcher Zach Messinger threw Zubia a fastball up and in. With a short, quick swing, Zubia hit a rocket into the left-center gap and knew it was going to reach the wall immediately, flipping his bat and raising his arm in celebration.
“Who doesn’t like a bases-clearing double at the very end of the game to kind of solidify a win?” Zubia asked rhetorically.
Pierce thought it was a huge moment for Zubia.
“He needed that so badly,” Pierce said. “He’s an emotional kid and a great leader for us, but at the same time, he’s just got to trust himself over and over is kind of a given theme from us. See the baseball, get a good pitch, be ready to hit.”
When Melendez went 2-for-4 with one home run and three RBI in the second game of the home series against West Virginia on May 21, he was hitting .355. Since the postseason started, Melendez is hitting .140 with a single home run and 18 strikeouts. But after slowly starting to make better contact, Melendez had his second multi-hit game in the last month on Thursday, doubling in the second inning and scoring the first run against Virginia.
In the eighth inning, Texas head coach David Pierce pulled Melendez aside before his at bat with the game tied at 2-2, two outs, and runners on first and second.
“Just wanted to tell me to slow the game down and slow my heart rate down and tell me how great of a hitter I am before I got in the box,” Melendez said.
The El Paso product came through, attacking a first-pitch fastball and singling up the middle to drove home center fielder Mike Antico for the go-ahead run.
“We’re swinging it pretty well right now — I think we’re putting up a few good ABs,” Melendez said. “I mean, obviously, we’ve got to work on a few things, but it’s baseball. You’ve got your ups and downs, you’ve got your tough ABs, you have your good ABs and just sticking to the grind.”
Pierce did not confirm ace Ty Madden (7-5, 2.42 ERA) as the Friday starter after the Virginia win, but did acknowledge that Madden will most likely get the ball again against Mississippi State. Madden threw 105 pitches in the Sunday loss.
The bigger question is whether Bednar is available after throwing 108 pitches — the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported that he’s likely the only Bulldogs pitcher who won’t be available on Friday. So perhaps Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis is holding Bednar back for a Saturday start if necessary or the first game of the championship series.
Left-hander Christian MacLeod, who started the season opener against Texas, may be the choice after he only threw 35 pitches over 1.1 innings against Virginia on Tuesday, exiting after allowing four runs on five hits and two walks without a strikeout.
Another option for Lemonis is fellow left-hander Houston Harding, the No. 3 starter in the regionals and super regionals who is 7-2 with a 2.87 ERA this season while holding opponents to a .221 batting average.
Whoever ends up starting for the Bulldogs, weather may once again impact the Longhorns with rain forecast during the game, though the chances did decrease during the afternoon hours.
[Update: 5:19 p.m. Central]
Looks like it will be Harding for Mississippi State in a game that will start a little bit later than scheduled after the delay caused by North Carolina State’s COVID issues. Rain chances also continue to decrease.
[Update: 5:4 6p.m. Central]
We’ve got a start time pending any inclement weather.
⚾️ #CWS GAME UPDATE ⚾️— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 25, 2021
Game 12 will begin play at 6:55 PM local time on ESPN.
And a couple changes in the lineup.
[Update: 10:50 p.m. Central]
Texas is in a rain delay in Omaha once again. The Horns took a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning before the Bulldogs tied it with three runs against Tanner Witt and Aaron Nixon, but with runners on first and second and one out in the ninth, Ivan Melendez worked a full count and hit a no-doubt home run that Texas fans won’t ever forget.
The Horns lead 8-5.
[Update: 11:32 p.m. Central]
Still lightning in the Omaha area.