For the third time in school history, the No. 9 seed Texas Longhorns are playing a super regional on the road, traveling to North Carolina to face the No. 8 seed East Carolina Pirates in the Greenville Super Regional at sold-out Clark-LeClair Stadium starting on Friday.
Texas has won both of their previous road super regionals, defeating Ole Miss in three games on the way to the 2005 national championship and sweeping Florida State in 2003. East Carolina has never hosted a super regional on its campus. Friday’s game will mark the first meeting between the two schools.
In the Austin Regional, the Longhorns scored 26 runs, never trailed, didn’t commit an error, and had a staff ERA of 2.00 in three games as third baseman Skyler Messinger earned Regional Tournament MVP honors by hitting .778 with a double, four RBI, and five runs scored. As a team, Texas has been hot since getting swept by Oklahoma State at home, winning 14 of the last 17 games.
Moved into the starting lineup for the regional in place of Mitchell Daly, Dylan Campbell came through for head coach David Pierce with three home runs, likely enough to maintain his role in right field with the versatile Murphy Stehly moving to second base.
Texas will send left-hander Pete Hansen (11-1, 3.08 ERA) to the mound on Friday as he looks to continue a strong postseason run that currently includes a shutout performance against Oklahoma State and 6.2 innings against Air Force last Friday.
“They’ve got a bunch of lefties and they hit the ball pretty well. They’re definitely a momentum-based offense and it’s going to be a challenge to kind of slow them down and make it my pace, but as a pitcher, I have the ball and it’s in my control and I kind of dictate how the game goes,” Hansen said on Wednesday.
“They wouldn’t be in this position if they didn’t know how to win games, so it’s going to be a fun one.”
The top two hitters for East Carolina are both left-handers — outfielders Lane Hoover (.343) and Jacob Jenkins-Cowart (.326, 12 home runs), who flank switch-hitting Bryson Worrell (.324, 18 home runs).
“You look through their offensive numbers — very similar to ours. Of course, our home run numbers [are higher] and I think we’ve got 40 more doubles, stolen-base percentage and numbers are very similar,” Texas head coach David Pierce said.
“Team defense is very similar. They have speed, They’re going to take bags when you give it to them, very similar to us. But then the power guys are true power guys. That offense has a balance to it very similar to what we do.”
Throughout most of the season, the question mark for Texas has been the bullpen, in sharp contrast to last season when Tanner Witt and Cole Quintanilla served a reliable set-up men for closer Aaron Nixon, whose fastball command issues have forced Pierce to remove him from that role.
“We’ve kind of gotten away from ‘this guy’s the setup guy’ and ‘this guy’s the closer.’ We’ve gotten away from that. We’re really more into, ‘How can this guy match up here? Is he the right guy?’’ Pierce said on Saturday.
“That’s going to continue. I don’t think we have that stability yet to say we’ve developed roles. I think the for-sure roles are the Friday night starter, the Saturday starter, and how we utilize Tristan [Stevens].”
Since texting Pierce asking to help the team however possible following the Oklahoma State series, Stevens has saved three games and helped stabilize the bullpen, including pitching 3.2 key innings against Louisiana Tech on Saturday.
“I just want to win,” Stevens said after the game. “I just want to win for this program. I just want to win for this team. Whatever it takes to do it, I’m going to do it. I really don’t care about my role.”
The entire bullpen pitched well in the Austin Regional, totaling 15.0 innings and only allowing two earned runs, including good performances from right-handers Travis Sthele and Jared Southard on front end of Sunday’s game as Pierce pieced together the regional-clinching win against Air Force.
Right-hander Marcus Olivarez has been the most consistent reliever with a 0.39 ERA in 17 appearances — the only run he’s allowed all season was a home run by Oklahoma in early April. And after failing to see action in the Austin Regional, Nixon and right-hander Zane Morehouse, who ended the regular season as the Sunday starter, but struggled to cement that role, both pitched well during a scrimmage on Tuesday.
“They have a little bit in their mouth because they didn’t get to compete in the regional and that’s a great sign. There’s two guys right there with as good of stuff [as anyone] on our team,” Pierce said.
So perhaps the bullpen is peaking at the right time as the Longhorns try to punch their ticket to Omaha.
How to Watch:
Time: Friday at 11 a.m. Central
Radio: 104.9 FM The Horn/1260 AM
Weather: Sunny, 78 degrees, northeast wind seven miles per hour