For a record-extending 38th time, the No. 9 seed Texas Longhorns are in Omaha for the College World Series with an opening game on Friday against the red-hot Notre Dame Fighting Irish coming off their upset of the No. 1 seed Tennessee Volunteers in the Knoxville Super Regional last week.
It’s been an up-and-down journey for the Longhorns this season — Texas was ranked as the preseason No. 1 team in the country and won the first 11 games to open the season before adversity struck. In March, No. 3 starter Tanner Witt suffered an arm injury that required Tommy John surgery and sixth-year senior Austin Todd suffered a shoulder injury. As the Horns went on the road for 10 of 11 games, Texas began to struggle and eventually fell out of the Top 25 after a series sweep by Oklahoma State in Austin.
But head coach David Pierce’s team finished the regular seasons strong and have now won 16 out of the last 20 games to return to Omaha, where the Longhorns came close to reaching the finals last season.
“The thing that was most impressive with our team is that they didn’t get caught up into it,” Pierce said of the struggles. “Neither did our coaches and we never got frustrated to a point where players or coaches started pointing fingers or creating animosity between the two or each other. We just continued to play. We just continued to think that we’re gonna get better every day. And we did.”
Texas starts the College World Series able to rely on its tremendous defense with the best fielding percentage in the country at .986, especially up the middle with catcher Silas Ardoin, shortstop Trey Faltine, second basemen Mitchell Daly and Murphy Stenly, and center fielder Douglas Hodo III.
Pierce also has arguably the best offensive team in school history — the Longhorns destroyed the single-season home run record even without the exploits of first baseman Ivan Melendez, whose 32 home runs set the new BBCOR record. Six other players have 10 or more home runs for Texas, including Stehly with 19 home runs and Faltine with 15 home runs. But the Horns don’t have to rely on home runs because the team hits .319 overall, fifth-best nationally and the best of any teams in the College World Series, and don’t go to the plate trying to drive the ball out of the park.
“We’re not really trying to hit home runs and our ultimate goal every single day is hit line drives in the middle of the field,” Pierce said. “And they talk about it every day. They call them diamond cutters and they’re just trying to hit diamond cutters every day. But I think when they learn how to use the opposite-field gap and backspin that, they’re creating their swing path. And that swing path is the reason and then you contribute to timing, rhythm, strength, all those things play a part.”
Weather conditions at UFCU Disch-Falk Field also played a role with the wind blowing out to left field for most of the season. In the Super Regional, the small dimensions of Clark-LeClair Stadium, particularly out to right field, helped the Horns mount a Saturday comeback with multiple opposite-field home runs in that direction.
Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, known as a pitcher’s park, won’t play as small as the Disch of Clark-LeClair at 335 feet down both lines, but the home run numbers in the College World Series have gone up since moving to a flat-seamed baseball in 2017, so Texas should maintain the ability to drive ball out of the ballpark.
The dimensions may benefit Friday starter Pete Hansen (11-2, 3.40), the left-handed Texas ace who has allowed 15 home runs on the season. Hansen is trying to bounce back from a disappointing start in last Friday’s loss to East Carolina in the Greenville Super Regional during which he gave up six runs on seven hits in only 4.0 innings.
If Hansen gets into trouble, the Longhorns bullpen has been pitching better down the stretch, led by right-hander Tristan Stevens, who started and earned the win Sunday against the Pirates. Right-handers Travis Sthele, Jared Southard, Marcus Olivarez, and Andre Duplantier have all had positive appearances.
Notre Dame will send left-hander John Mitchael Bertrand (9-3, 2.67) to the mound on Friday. A graduate transfer from Furman, Bertrand was cut from the team as a freshman, only to become a reliable starter there and at Notre Dame, where he’s held opponents to a .232 batting average this season.
iBut since t’s the first appearance at the College World Series in 20 years for the Fighting Irish, the Longhorns should have an advantage in familiarity and confidence.
“Part of the reason we come to Texas is because of that history and that legacy and the name on the front of our jersey means more to us than anything and we want to make our alumni and our team proud and each time we step on the field, we know what we’re representing,” Ardoin said. “And so any time, like Trey said, any time we’re in a tough situation, we know we could fight out of it because teams have done it before and coming to Omaha 38 times at this point, it’s expected and we want to come out here and perform and do the best we can for our alumni.”
How to Watch:
Time: Friday at 6:15 p.m. Central
Radio: 104.9 FM The Horn/1260 AM
Weather: Sunny, 91 degrees, east-southeast wind nine miles per hour