Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Even in early CWS defeat, we see that David Pierce has brought Texas baseball back

Posted June 19th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Texas lost two straight CWS games for only the fifth time in 36 Omaha trips, but this Texas team should be remembered for just getting here.
  • Among the highlights of this season were the school's first Big 12 regular-season title in seven years, a regional win over Texas A&M and a super regional championship.
  • Asked what he'll remember most from the season, senior first baseman Jake McKenzie, "I'll remember Kody's 24 bombs."

OMAHA, Neb. — Texas’ trip to the College World Series shouldn’t be remembered for the fact that it was one of the first two teams going home.

Instead, these Longhorns should be recognized for just getting here at all.

That in itself was a monumental achievement for a team whose accomplishments will greatly overshadow the hugely disappointing outcomes here.

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Florida ended Texas’ bid for a seventh national championship on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon with a dominant 6-1 masterpiece by a pitcher destined for the major leagues in Jackson Kowar.

Texas players and fans leave the stands after a College World Series baseball game against Florida, Tuesday, June 19, 2018, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. [Brad Tollefson/A-J Media]
But second-year head coach David Pierce deserves immense credit for leading this overachieving team to Omaha despite erratic pitching and a lagging offense that, but for the final month of the year, remained challenged most of the season.

Texas may be leaving here way too prematurely, but make no mistake. Under Pierce, it has arrived.

“This season established David’s culture,” athletic director Chris Del Conte said. “This team believed in him, and this is a win for Texas baseball. I think this is emblematic of a new energy at Texas. I mean, all 20 of our teams made the post-season. We’re the only school in the country who can say that. That’s crazy.”

This was a season of crazy-good for the burnt orange.

Texas won its first Big 12 regular-season title since 2011. It earned a top 16 national seed. It hosted a regional and beat blood rival Texas A&M. It hosted a super regional and dominated a powerhouse offense in Tennessee Tech.

Kody Clemens is certain to leave for a shot at the majors with the Detroit Tigers after one of the best seasons in school history with his spectacular power outburst in the post-season that electrified the fan base at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.

Asked what he’ll remember, ultimate utilityman Jake McKenzie said, “I think it’s going to be the year Kody hit 24 bombs.”

Sure, a Texas club picked to finish third in the Big 12 will come home after just two games in Omaha, tied for seventh in the CWS with Washington. It’s the first Longhorns team to lose two straight here since 2011 and only the fifth in a record 36 trips here. That the Longhorns even punched their ticket here with a veteran pitching staff that jelled late and a challenged hitting attack following a 9-9 start that fed off Clemens was nothing short of spectacular.

In doing so, Pierce re-established the proud Longhorns baseball brand and paved the foundation for future CWS trips. Under this staff, the pitching stabilized in May and clutch hitting surfaced at just the right time to produce six heroic wins in seven games in the NCAA regional and super regional.

“There’s nobody in this country who expected this team to be here,” Pierce said. “The things that they had to accomplish to get here is incredible.”

Cliff Gustafson delivered a pair of national championships to Austin as did his successor, the late Augie Garrido. But Gus didn’t win it all until his seventh trip here in his eighth year. Garrido struggled mightily his first three seasons but cracked the CWS seal in his fourth year and claimed a national title in his sixth.

So Pierce might be right on schedule, if not ahead of it. For the second year in a row he’ll lose a ton of pitchers to the draft, including his top two starters in Nolan Kingham and Chase Shugart. But he’ll return his entire outfield and the left side of the infield with the sure-handed David Hamilton and Ryan Reynolds, as well as catcher D.J. Petrinsky and a host of exciting young arms in his recruiting class.

There’s no shame in falling to defending national champion and top-seeded Florida or to fifth seed Arkansas, one of the best Razorbacks teams ever. Consider that of the 76 home runs hit out of TD Ameritrade Park in eight years, Florida players have 14 of them, including two Tuesday, the big one a three-run deep fly by Cincinnati Reds first-round draftee Jonathan India off Shugart in the sixth inning.

Other than Clemens — the only .300 hitter in the order — Texas’ lineup scratched and clawed for runs anyway it could get them.

On Tuesday, it got one.

“This team,” Pierce said, “was not physically put together like an Omaha team might be.”

It got exposed by Kowar, a 6-5 stringbean and a first-round sandwich pick of the Kansas City Royals who mowed down the Longhorns with a career-best 13 strikeouts and stranded most of the 11 UT baserunners. He found his rhythm early with a nasty changeup and a fastball that topped out at 96 mph, even on his 100th pitch.

The Longhorns got just two hits in 20 CWS at-bats with runners in scoring position and were hitless with nine such opportunities Tuesday until Petrinsky singled in a run in the eighth.

The pitching deserted Texas in a 11-5 loss to Arkansas. The hitting was nowhere to be found against Florida.

But there’s plenty of life again in Longhorns baseball, and that signals a bright future.

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