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College World Series trip on the line as Texas travels to play No. 8 Stanford

The Longhorns have a chance to advance to Omaha for the fourth time under head coach David Pierce.

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

After beating the No. 9-seed Miami Hurricanes last week in the Coral Gables Regional to extend head coach David Pierce’s regional winning streak to 12 games, the Texas Longhorns play the No. 8-seed Stanford Cardinal in the Palo Alto Super Regional starting on Saturday for a berth in the College World Series.

Of the 82 meetings between the two storied programs, the Longhorns and the Cardinal have split the 12 games played in the postseason.

Pierce’s teams have won each of his three super regional appearances at Texas — in 2018, 2021, and 2022 — as the Longhorns try to earn their 39th trip to Omaha. Like last year, Texas will have to accomplish the feat on the road after Stanford survived three elimination games to remain alive in the postseason, including two convincing victories over Texas A&M.

With the convincing performances in Coral Gables, the Longhorns are two wins away from an improbable run to the College World Series after turning over much of the roster from last season’s team, which failed to live up to sky-high expectations thanks to a quick departure from Omaha.

“I think what’s so gratifying for this group is it’s kind of separated from the ‘21, ‘22 teams where they’re always in the shadows of last year’s team and the great players we had and the exceptional Super Regional that we had at ECU and going Omaha, so now they’ve kind of created their own identity and have a lot of confidence,” Pierce said this week on 104.9 The Horn.

Last weekend, nothing helped the team’s confidence more than two huge outfield plays early in the regional opener against Louisiana when center fielder Eric Kennedy robbed the Ragin’ Cajuns of a three-run home run in the fourth inning to avoid a deficit and right fielder Dylan Campbell made a sensational diving catch in the sixth inning.

“I told him after the game that his catch was better because that honestly saved the game — if that ball goes over the fence you never know if we win or lose that game, so yours is way harder,” Campbell said of his conversation with Kennedy. “Yeah, mine was a lot harder but his meant more to the team.”

Texas ace Lucas Gordon, the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, took full advantage of the defensive help, allowing five hits and one run over seven innings with eight strikeouts as the offense came through with just enough punch — a home run by shortstop Mitchell Daly, an RBI single by left fielder Porter Brown, and a two-run double by Campbell to extend a hitting streak that now sits at 38 games.

Right-hander Zane Morehouse pitched the final two innings for the save after working to get back to his natural arm slot, the start of an impressive weekend that saw him close out Miami on Sunday with seven strikeouts over 2.2 innings. The Longhorns were in a position to win that game thanks to 4.1 solid innings from right-hander Charlie Hurley, on early in relief of ineffective starter Tanner Witt.

The outings from Morehouse and Hurley were made all the more impressive by their struggles at times during the regular season.

“For those guys that have had their struggles to be just a huge part of our success in Miami just means that they’re still all in and it means that they’ve never stopped working and believing in themselves and us as coaches have not stopped believing in them,” Pierce said.

Beyond the defensive gems that helped avoid a loss in the opener, the most impressive single performance of the weekend came on Saturday from right-hander Lebarron Johnson Jr., who turned in of the best postseason outings for a Texas pitcher since Chad Hollingsworth’s complete game against Texas A&M in 2014 during which he allowed one run on two hits while throwing 128 pitches.

Johnson dealt with adversity early, working out of bases-loaded jams in the first two innings before finding his rhythm and allowing one run on seven hits with eight strikeouts while throwing 129 pitches in the complete-game performance. It was the latest in a string of strong outings for Johnson late in the season that helped him earn second-team All-American honors.

It’s been a remarkable ascension for a pitcher who was signed out of Florida as a developmental project. Johnson redshirted his first season on the Forty Acres and didn’t make the postseason roster last year before his breakout campaign.

“This is a young man that is the ultimate poster child for development,” Pierce said of Johnson. “I mean, this guy is a sponge and he wants to be great, but he’s just now coming into his own and we’re reaping the benefits because he’s just such a great teammate and he pays attention and he has the ability to just repeat what he does.”

Texas will need Johnson to repeat his delivery against a strong Stanford offense that ranks in or near the top 10 nationally in multiple categories, including fourth in hits (693), eighth in slugging percentage (.548), 10th in scoring (8.6 runs per game) and batting average (.318), and 11th in home runs (113).

Pierce called it a well-rounded group that can also use the short game when necessary and features pitching that sometimes gets overlooked, as well as a solid defense. Since left-handed ace Quinn Matthews (9-4, 3.65 ERA) threw nearly 200 pitches last weekend, he’ll start on Sunday with right-hander Joey Dixon (6-0, 4.99 ERA) matching up against Gordon on Saturday. Stanford ranks 16th nationally in strikeouts per game (10.4) while notching an 18-5 record in games decided by two runs or less. However, the Cardinal are 0-7 when scoring two runs or fewer this season.

First pitch on Saturday at Sunken Diamond is at 5 p.m. Central on ESPN2.