For the 10th time overall and the first time since 2020, the No. 1 Texas Longhorns are in Houston for the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Mark Park with three games on tap for the weekend — against the No. 17 Tennessee Volunteers on Friday, against the No. 7 LSU Tigers on Saturday, and against the UCLA Bruins on Sunday.
The Volunteers will seek revenge for an 8-4 victory by the Longhorns in the College World Series last season, but have wins over Texas in the College Classic in 2008 and 2012. LSU pulled out a 4-3 win two years ago at the College Classic and UCLA last faced Texas in the 2017 Long Beach Regional, losing in the opening round to the Longhorns, 4-3.
Head coach David Pierce is certainly hoping for better results this season than Texas achieved in its last early-season tournament appearance — three disappointing losses last season to three SEC schools at the State Farm College Baseball Showdown in Arlington. Those season-opening games came shortly after the winter freeze left the Horns unable to practice for days leading up to the event and Texas was without left-hander Pete Hansen as a weekend starter until late in the season. With a 9-0 start this year, the full practice slate available, and virtually the entire pitching staff performing at exceptionally high levels, the Longhorns are much better prepared this season.
But the challenge will still be significant.
Talented freshman right-hander Chase Burns has not allowed a run in two starts and features a big-time fastball in the mid-90s, but has reached triple digits in high school, a good slider against right-handers, and a curveball he can throw for strikes. The staff as a whole boasts a 0.90 ERA, second nationally only behind Texas, and leads the nation with a 0.74 WHIP.
Taking advantage of a weak early schedule, Tennessee has hit at an extremely high level so far, outscoring UNC Asheville and Iona 84-4 over four games last week. The Volunteers lead the country in runs per game (15.1), total runs (121), doubles (30), home runs (25), slugging percentage (.792), walks (76) ,and on-base percentage (.513). Through eight games, 11 players have hit home runs for the Volunteers and 10 regulars are hitting .300 or better. Catcher Jared Dickey is hitting .692 from the leadoff spot and third baseman Trey Lipscomb is batting .533.
So the Texas pitchers against the Tennessee hitters will be one of the best matchups to watch over the entire nine-game slate.
The bats should have a better opportunity against LSU, which will likely send right-hander Ma’Khail Hilliard to the mound on Saturday. Hilliard is only allowing opponents to hit .200 against him in eight innings of work over two appearances, but has allowed seven runs, five earned, against Maine and Southern. As a team, the Tigers are holding opposing hitters to a .176 batting average while hitting .354 as a team with two players, Brayden Jobert and Jacob Berry, who have already hit four home runs.
One area to watch — whether the Tigers give the Longhorns extra opportunities with mistakes in the field. LSU has 16 errors and a .949 fielding percentage through nine games. Shortstop Jordan Thompson is the primary culprit with six of those errors.
UCLA entered the weekend at 6-3 and lost the early game to Baylor, 2-1, as the Bears starter nearly pitched a complete game. The three other losses came against Cal State Northridge, Pepperdine, and Omaha as the Bruins have scuffled at the plate, entering the weekend hitting only .249 as a team. The pitching staff has performed much better with a 2.22 ERA and the projected Sunday starter, right-hander Kelly Austin, hasn’t allowed a run in 12 innings of work so far this season with 12 strikeouts and only five hits allowed.
Texas faces Tennessee at 7:00 p.m. Central on Friday, LSU at 7 p.m. on Saturday, and UCLA at 3 p.m. Central on Sunday.
All three of the games will be televised nationally on MLB Network, regionally by AT&T SportsNet SW, and streamed nationally on Astros.com. Astros Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts, as well as the MLB app, will all televise the games, too.
[Friday update]: After the LSU-OU went 11 innings, ending a walk-off win for the Tigers, first pitch is now at 8:35 p.m. Central.
[Saturday update]: There’s a much shorter delay tonight, with first pitch at 7:10 p.m. Central.