After another late-night win impacted by a rain delay, the Texas Longhorns have survived three elimination games and now sit one more victory away from advancing to the College World Series finals to face the Vanderbilt Commodores.
But the Longhorns need to get past the Mississippi State Bulldogs at 6 p.m. Central on ESPN2 to play for a national championship.
And Bulldogs ace Will Bednar and star reliever Landon Sims stand in the way after Mississippi State officially announced Bednar as the starter on Saturday afternoon.
Bednar only allowed one hit and one walk with 15 strikeouts over 6.0 innings in a dominant performance against Texas last Sunday that sent his MLB Draft stock soaring to another level. For Bednar, the quality of his breaking pitches often becomes apparent early in a contest, but he consistently works his fastball with carry up in the zone.
Unless Bednar struggles with his off-speed offerings, affording the Longhorns chances to hit hanging pitches, Texas needs to accomplish what it did not in Bednar’s last appearance — avoid chasing fastballs up in the zone and force the home-plate umpire to call high strikes.
The Mississippi State plan will look like it did six days ago. Get six or seven or eight innings from Bednar and then hand the ball to Sims, who hasn’t pitched since the Bulldogs beat the Hoos on Tuesday. Sims only threw 15 pitches over 1.1 innings in that game after working 3.0 innings with six strikeouts in relief of Bednar on Sunday. In the ninth inning of that game, the Horns finally put some pressure on Sims, scoring a run and getting runners on base.
If Sims does appear on Sunday, it will be the third time he’s faced Texas this season, so perhaps the familiarity for the Longhorns hitters will help mitigate the quality stuff of Sims.
Texas also should have an advantage because first baseman Zach Zubia and Ivan Melendez have broken out of their slumps in the last two games. Zubia got on track with his three-run double against Virginia to help seal that game after Melendez doubled early and scored, then hit the go-ahead single. Both continued to produce against Mississippi State — Zubia homered in the first inning and Melendez put Texas ahead for good with his unforgettable three-run home run in the ninth.
And Bednar has allowed 11 home runs this season, including three games with two home runs allowed.
Matching Bednar on the mound will be a bigger challenge than it was last Sunday with Texas ace Ty Madden pitching well. Longhorns head coach David Pierce once again declined to name a starter after beating the Bulldogs, but ultimately went with the expected choice — Tristan Stevens. The right-hander only lasted 3.1 innings against Tennessee on Tuesday, allowing six hits and four runs over the shortest outing of his season.
So the good news is that Stevens only threw 58 pitches and should be able to bounce back without too much fatigue. The bad news is that Stevens hasn’t been particularly sharp in either of his last two outings — five of his 22 walks came over that stretch and he’s allowed eight runs. In both games, Stevens didn’t appear to have good feel for his off-speed pitches or his typical high-level command of his sinking fastball. Tennessee hitters, in particular, refused to offer at his low sliders, trying to get him to elevate the pitch and throw it for strikes.
Against the Volunteers, reliever Tanner Witt saved Stevens and the Longhorns, but the Texas bullpen is not as well positioned as that of Mississippi State after three elimination games. Witt threw 41 pitches over 1.1 innings on Friday and likely won’t be available. Closer Aaron Nixon’s availability is also in question after he threw 14 pitches on Thursday and 34 pitches on Friday — the freshman hasn’t pitched in three consecutive games yet in his college career.
As a result, if Stevens can’t work deep in the game, Pierce may have to go to former Sunday starter Kolby Kubichek as a bridge to Cole Quintanilla or use relievers without as much experience in high-leverage situations like left-hander Lucas Gordon or right-hander Parmer Wenzel. Kubichek has only pitched once in nearly two months, Gordon has thrown just five pitches in the NCAA Tournament, and Wenzel has received one appearance — in the blowout against Southern — since late April.
But that’s the nature of having to work out of the loser’s bracket, forcing Stevens and the available relievers to reach deep to match the Mississippi State stars.
So the question is, does this Texas team have a little bit more magic left?