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No. 1 Texas grinds out 7-2 win against No. 17 Tennessee

The Longhorns took advantage of the bullpen for the Vols and, despite some struggles, the back end help up thanks to a big rescue by closer Aaron Nixon.

Texas baseball

Against talented right-hander Chase Burns, the No. 1 Texas Longhorns largely scuffled through five innings, but capitalized against the bullpen of the No. 17 Tennessee Volunteers for an impressive 7-2 win on Friday evening at Minute Maid Park in Houston as part of the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic.

Burns, a highly-ranked prospect heading into the 2021 MLB Draft, opted for college baseball over the professional ranks and stood out on a big stage, throwing a fastball in the high 90s and using a wipeout slider with heavy glove-side action to strike out 10 Texas batters over five innings. The Longhorns only managed two hits and a walk over that stretch, but a big swing by shortstop Trey Faltine in the fifth ensured that Texas got into the Tennessee bullpen with a 1-1 tie.

Against the straight fastball of Burns, Faltine got into a favorable count at 2-0, sat dead red, and made no mistake of the pitch up and out over the plate with a moonshot into the Crawford Boxes.

When the Tennessee bullpen struggled, Texas capitalized, taking a commanding lead and holding on despite some control issues from the bullpen before closer Aaron Nixon got the final six outs with much less drama.

First baseman Ivan Melendez came through with a double and a triple in his final two at bats to drive in two runs and three other players behind him in the lineup each added an RBI of their own to supplement Fatine’s home run.

Tennessee’s bullpen struggled after Chase Burns left the game.

When Burns left the game after five innings and 81 pitches, Texas quickly jumped on right-hander Camden Sewell, a pitcher without the velocity of Burns who struggled some with his slider location and overall effectiveness. Left fielder Eric Kennedy led off with a double into the right-field corner and Melendez gave the Longhorns a 2-1 advantage with a double to the wall in left center.

After second baseman Mitchell Daly walked and catcher Silas Ardoin narrowly avoided grounding into a double play at third, a fake bunt and lashed grounder to second with difficult spin by designated hitter Murphy Stehly was mishandled, allowing Daly to score from second. With the runners in motion, third baseman Skyler Messinger singled in Ardoin to extend the margin to 4-1 and chase Sewell from the game.

In the seventh, right-hander Travis Sthele replaced starting left-hander Pete Hansen and, like Sewell, wasn’t especially sharp. He couldn’t find his out pitch against the first batter, allowing a walk, then gave up a single to right field. Struggling to throw his slider for strikes, Sthele wasn’t about to get outs with his fastball, either, and didn’t get any help from Messinger at third on a sharply-hit chopper that allowed a run to score. After another long battle, Sthele got a popout to Ardoin in foul territory to allow an exit from the inning without further damage for left-hander Luke Harrison out of the bullpen.

Harrison responded with a three-pitch strikeout to end the threat, aided by a generous called third strike on a fastball located off the plate.

Center fielder Douglas Hodo III used a bunt single to start the inning and Kennedy followed with a sacrifice bunt, affording Melendez another opportunity with a runner in scoring position. The El Paso slugger responded yet again, barreling a breaking ball that caught way too much of the plate into a unique part of Minute Maid Park — right at the corner of the Crawford Boxes in left center that ricocheted off a pillar and into the corner of the power alley, resulting in the first triple of the season for Melendez and the fourth of his career with the Horns.

Call that one a Minute Maid special.

Ardoin made it a 6-2 game with a long drive to right center to score Melendez on the sacrifice fly and Stehly drove another run on a single up the middle.

But right-hander Jared Southard didn’t look ready for the setup role in the eighth inning, either, walking a batter, hitting a batter, and leaving the game in favor of closer Aaron Nixon on a 2-0 count after throwing 10 balls and only three strikes. Kennedy tracked down a hard-hit line drive into the left-field corner on Nixon’s first pitch and the Texas closer did the rest, working around a walk to load the bases with two strikeouts.

Hansen got off to a strong start, attacking the strike zone and getting a strikeout swinging and a strikeout looking. After falling behind against the third hitter, he gave up a sharp single over Faltine on a 3-1 fastball and a bloop single to left field to the next batter, who tried to score when the throw to third got by Messinger, but Hansen was in the right position to back it up and Jordan Beck was cut down at the plate by a wide margin.

Leading off the second, Hansen had a little bit of luck when Trey Lipscomb nearly drove a fastball that caught too much of the plate out to right-center field for an opposite-field home run, but Texas right fielder Austin Todd was able to make a nice running catch near the warning track.

A walk and a stolen base by shortstop Trey Faltine and a hit by pitch of left fielder Eric Kennedy gave the Longhorns runners on first and second with two outs in the third, but Melendez struck out looking on a 1-2 pitch to end the threat.

In the fourth, Hansen faced the minimum when Silas Ardoin threw out Drew Gilbert with two outs. Gilbert had walked earlier in the inning and the close play at second was upheld on review.

Hansen gave up some good contact to Tennessee hitters on multiple occasions through the first 4.2 innings, including two long outs to start the inning. Then catcher Evan Russell broke open the scoreless tie with a line drive into the Crawford Boxes in left field, an absolute bullet that left Minute Maid park in a hurry when Hansen paid for losing his typically pinpoint fastball control. It was the first run allowed by Hansen in 15.2 innings to start the season and the Friday starter finished the game allowing one run on five hits with five strikeouts and one walk in six innings and 90 pitches.

And although the bullpen looked shaky getting the ball to Nixon, the Texas staff made enough pitches to get out of the game and remain undefeated. Tennessee did not.

Texas faces No. 7 LSU at 7:10 p.m. Central on Saturday with the game televised nationally on MLB Network, regionally by AT&T SportsNet SW, and streamed nationally on Astros Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts, as well as the MLB app, will all televise the games, too.