Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: ‘Destination: Omaha’ — Bocchi, Robinson throw Texas to CWS berth

Posted June 11th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Texas' Matteo Bocchi, Parker Joe Robinson and Nolan Kingham are what Tennesse Tech coach Matt Bragga called "elite arms."
  • The Longhorns pitchers held the heavy-hitting Golden Eagles to a single home run in three games and a .202 team batting average.
  • Texas players and coach David Pierce all said they felt Augie Garrido's presence in clinching a 36th College World Series trip.

Augie would have loved it.

Some 7,370 sun-drenched souls at UFCU Disch-Falk Field did love it and rose and fell with every single pitch of the championship game of the NCAA super regional on a sultry Monday afternoon. Mostly they reveled in the last one, a Nolan Kingham pitch with the bases loaded in the ninth that Tennessee Tech’s Brennon Kaleiwahea grounded to shortstop David Hamilton, who threw to first for the final out.

That set off a raucous celebration among the biggest crowd of the year. Kingham flung his glove as far as he could throw toward the Texas dugout. His Longhorns teammates, wearing black caps with “Destination: Omaha” in bold white letters, rushed the infield and hooped and hollered before heading to OccupyLF and firing Smokey the Cannon.

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The Longhorns are headed back to Omaha, their home away from home, for the College World Series.

And, yes, they know the way.

Texas’ Nolan Kingham celebrates a final pitch for a 5-2 win over Tennessee Tech during an NCAA Super Regional at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin, Monday, June 11, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

An athletic program starved for success since its last national championships in its bread-and-butter sports of baseball and football in 2005 is suddenly showing signs of rearing its head. Of late, Texas has been reduced to beating its chest after winning a Texas Bowl game or making the NCAA basketball tournament (but still waiting on winning a game in March).

Now this. A full house. Everything on the line. Big-time players showing up with bigger-time performances.

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Less than three months after the game’s then-winningest coach Augie Garrido died at 79, this collection of self-described misfits and scrappers that included freshmen and junior-college players and overlooked players who’ve overcome injuries punched their ticket for a 36th CWS trip by suffocating the offensive powerhouse that was Tennessee Tech 5-2.

“This is not a typical Texas team full of blue-chip players,” said coach David Pierce, who will be making his fifth trip to Omaha after four as a Rice assistant. “We have some, but we have special contributors.”

Not that winning big games was anything new, especially at the Disch where the Horns are 32-8. Texas won a three-game series for the ninth time in 12 chances. And the Longhorns did it with emphatic pitching, a trademark under Garrido and Cliff Gustafson and now Pierce in his second year.

Texas’ Matteo Bocchi pitches against Tennessee Tech during an NCAA Super Regional at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin, Monday, June 11, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Pierce made almost every right move from starting little-used right-hander Matteo Bocchi — the junior from Parma, Italy is so new to college baseball he’d never heard of the CWS until “a year or so ago” was making his fourth start — to mixing and matching with Kingham to close and the unflappable Parker Joe Robinson in between for 2 2/3 of the gutsiest relief innings in years. The same Robinson that Pierce came close to cutting from the team his first year on the job before lowering his arm angle with terrific results.

Consider this: The Golden Eagles had the nation’s best offense with 134 home runs and hit just one homer in 27 innings here. Texas hit four, three from Mr. June himself, Kody Clemens. Tennessee Tech had hit .338 as a team, but got just eight hits in its two losses here, hit .202 as a club and scored only nine total runs in three games.

“They’ve got some elite arms and have an incredible coach,” Tech coach Matt Bragga said. “We got five hits today. What did we have yesterday? Three? To do this to these young men, honestly, I’m amazed.”

It’s hard not to be, but that’s what Texas does. It beats you into submission with excellent pitching. The staff misfired over and over all season, but once the post-season arrived the pitchers have been lights out dominant. The two who got saves in Games 2 and 3 were their top two starters, Kingham and Chase Shugart.

Texas baseball players pet center field as they celebrate a 5-2 win over Tennessee Tech during an NCAA Super Regional at UFCU Disch-Falk Field in Austin, Monday, June 11, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

But the decision was so smart to go with Bocchi, a talented right-hander who showed up here from Odessa College with teammate Masen Hibbeler, whose double spearheaded the early rally off Ryan Reynolds’ two-run double. Bocchi retired the first six in order and allowed just one run on four hits over five innings.

Pierce wisecracked that Bocchi taught himself to pitch on the Internet and showed up with eight pitches, but told him, “We only need three.” His fastballs, sliders and changeups kept the Eagles in knots, and Robinson and Kingham applied the finishing touches.

Matters got a little dicey in the sixth when Tech filled the bases, but Robinson came on to limit the damage to one run on a sacrifice fly and a grounder.

“Maybe Augie was with us,” Robinson said.

In many respects, he was. Pierce rubbed Garrido’s No. 16 jersey hanging in the dugout when things got tense, and the Longhorns survived to win their sixth game in seven tries in these playoffs. Ten of those players played for Augie.

Afterward, the team gathered at the orange Longhorn silhouette with AG 16 in center field to pose for pictures as they flashed Hook ‘ems to commemorate the season’s ascent from a 9-9 start. Garrido died a day later on March 15, and an inspired Texas team has won 33 of 45 games since.

“Wow,” Pierce said to open his press conference. “Awesome, awesome day.”

Augie couldn’t have said it any better.

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