Two victories in the Austin Regional have the No. 9 seed Texas Longhorns well-positioned to extend the season with a Super Regional bid in a Sunday evening matchup against the winner of the afternoon game between the Air Force Fighting Falcons and the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
Texas advanced to the regional final with Saturday’s 5-2 win over Louisiana Tech in game that played out much more like a Friday matchup than the opening win over Air Force.
Through the first six innings, the Longhorns only managed three hits thanks to an impressive performance by Bulldogs right-hander Ryan Jennings, whose only real mistake pitches hit opposing batters, hugely different than hanging breaking balls or grooving fastballs to a team with as much power as Texas.
But after Jennings left the game in the seventh in favor of closer Kyle Crigger, the game changed as Crigger allowed six consecutive hits, leading to the Longhorns scoring three crucial runs to break a 1-1 tie. While the Louisiana Tech head coach suggested that Crigger might have been tipping pitches, Texas head coach David Pierce credited advanced scouting for his team unlocking Crigger’s fastball/slider combination.
“Honestly, really good scouting, understanding what he’s going to do, understand who we are, and just being in a good spot,” Pierce said.
Texas pitching wasn’t especially sharp as left-hander Lucas Gordon battled through 5.1 innings and allowing nine hits, but he made the necessary pitches to only allow one run. And right-hander Tristan Stevens was rock solid in his 3.2 innings, striking out five while throwing 58 pitches in front of a record crowd at UFCU Disch-Falk Field. The two pitches combined to strand 13 Louisiana Tech baserunners.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly why I came back — to help this team try to bring home a championship and whatever role that is, I’m gonna give everything I’ve got, whether it’s start, relieve, close. That’s just something that I’ve dreamt about. I’m going to do everything I can,” Stevens said.
The Saturday starter last season and for most of this season, Stevens moved back into the bullpen role he previously occupied when he earned the nickname “The Fireman” after sending Pierce a message saying he was willing to serve as a closer or middle reliever if that was what the team needed.
Since making that change after the Oklahoma State series, Stevens has been key in helping stabilize the bullpen over 11 appearances as Texas has gone 14-3 since that devastating home sweep.
Air Force avoided elimination on Saturday with a 5-1 win over Dallas Baptist keyed by two home runs, including one from Friday starter Paul Skenes, and a strong pitching performance from Doyle Gehring, who only allowed three hits and one run over 7.0 innings.
While the Falcons and Bulldogs battle in the heat with a 1 p.m. Central start, Texas will have a chance to rest and wait for the cooler evening hours.
“It’s huge,” Stevens said of winning Saturday to avoid having to win two elimination games on Sunday. “I think it’s gonna be 103 tomorrow or something like that. To be able to let our players rest, watch the teams compete and get ready for the final game, it’s big, you know? But the job’s not finished. Anything can happen in baseball, so they’re gonna give us their best punch. We’ve just got to be ready and dish it back.”
[4:38 p.m. Central update]: Air Force beat Louisiana Tech 9-7 on Sunday afternoon to avoid elimination for a second straight game behind two home runs from right fielder Jake Greiving. To win the Austin Regional, the Falcons will have to beat the Longhorns on Sunday and again on Monday.
How to Watch:
Time: Sunday at 7 p.m. Central
TV: Longhorn Network
Radio: 104.9 FM The Horn/1260 AM
Weather: Mostly sunny, 95 degrees, south-southeast wind 10 miles per hour