OMAHA, Neb. — David Pierce may have made his biggest coaching blunder as a Longhorn to date Sunday night.
But he clearly thought it was worth the risk.
He used his two best pitchers and still lost, falling 11-5 to Arkansas in their College World Series opener.
That can be a recipe for disaster in a protracted CWS that forces a first-game loser like Texas to have to win a pitching-taxing, six games over a span of nine days to emerge as the national champion. No team has dropped its first game and won it all since South Carolina in 2010.
Texas isn’t panicking.
“Super regional, we lost the first game,” Texas ace Nolan Kingham said. “I mean, we’ve been here before.”
Pierce’s juggling of what became a bruised and battered pitching staff against the Razorbacks will be called into question because the second-year Texas head coach naturally started Kingham but — following a near three-hour rain delay — resumed the game with Chase Shugart, his No. 2 pitcher if not his co-ace, on the mound.
Neither was efficient although Kingham was early. Not than any other Longhorn pitcher was in a beatdown by an outstanding Arkansas team in their CWS opener. Texas gave up 11 runs after allowing 14 total in six regional and super regional games. Pierce may have been fortunate Arkansas ripped Shugart for three runs and he only threw 10 pitches because Pierce had planned to stick with him longer with a tighter score.
“Hindsight is a beautiful thing,” Pierce said. “You look back at that and you would really say should have stuck with Nolan. But Parker Joe (Robinson) hadn’t walked two guys in the entire year back to back and that’s what happened. And it just unraveled.
“We tried to get it settled down with Chase right there and finish the inning and just, again, they just continued to hit and created a huge deficit.”
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn understood Pierce’s move and said it signaled to him the importance Texas placed on this game.
“It’s hard to second-guess anybody trying to win their first game. Because if you don’t win, you get Florida or Texas Tech and someone is going home,” Van Horn said. “So I don’t blame David at all. If Blaine (Knight) got in trouble early and it was tight, we talked (about going) with Isaiah Campbell or (Kacey) Murphy. These are guys that start for us because that’s how important it is. But I would say I would definitely consider doing it.”
Oddly enough, the decision backfired for a coach who had made one masterful move after another this season and especially throughout these NCAA playoffs. He, along with pitching coach Phil Haig and assistants Sean Allen and Philip Miller, pulled one rabbit after another out of their caps in both the NCAA regional and super regional before misfiring here.
Pierce could do no wrong in the post-season.
He used all four of his starters in relief, including Kingham in the super, to nail down pivotal saves.
He used Blair Henley in relief, and he retired nine straight after a first-batter home run.
He bumped Jake McKenzie up to sixth in the order with solid results.
He moved Ryan Reynolds to ninth to take some pressure off him and coax a huge hit out of him in the super regional.
He infused his team with confidence after losing Game 1 of the super regional and got them to play loose and focused.
He turned to Matteo Bocchi for his fourth start of the season to stifle Tennessee Tech.
He didn’t panic after two quick losses and elimination from the Big 12 Tournament. And won’t panic now.
There are no guarantees that every move will work, however. The bullpen moves to Robinson and Josh Sawyer weren’t fruitful as both walked in a Razorback with the bases loaded Sunday before turning to Shugart.
“The thinking was we’re in a pickle,” Pierce said. “We need to get our best guy in the game right now. And if we can get it within one run, as far as giving up one run, so it’s a four-run deficit, and then we can tack on runs, maybe two, then we were going to stick with Chase. Otherwise, we were going to get him out, keep him available and move to the next guy, and that’s what we did.”
The only guys who made worse decisions than Pierce on Sunday were the two dunderheads who jumped from the left-field bleachers into the field of play at TD Ameritrade Park during that lengthy stoppage and were roughly — that’s roughly, as in textbook tackles — taken down by members of the ballpark ground crew.
One was a young, sheepish Arkansas fan in a red Razorbacks shirt, the other a brash, shirtless, bearded man who flashed the Hook e’m Horns sign just before he was hooked into a city jail.
So technically it was a 1-1 tie between the two, perhaps overserved, underbrained patrons of Game 3 of this College World Series.
Pierce didn’t come as close as a tie. And he compounded the matter by choosing to use Shugart after the rain delay even though Texas trailed by three runs in the sixth with the bases loaded and nobody out. That changed quickly when Arkansas’ Casey Martin singled in a run for a 6-2 lead off Shugart’s first, and freshman Heston Kjerstad singled in two more for his third hit of the game.
Arkansas scored eight runs in the sixth inning before Texas even got an out and somehow escaped further damage, but was damage already done?
Thankfully for Pierce, Shugart was lifted after hitting the next batter and didn’t require max effort. He threw just 10 pitches. So possibly his outing could be considered light throwing on an off day, and he might still be available for Tuesday’s start against the loser of Sunday night’s Florida-Texas Tech game, but the risk was great if he had hung around longer.
“I haven’t chosen which one yet,” Pierce said of a decision between Shugart and Henley. “It may have something to do with who we face. I will say I like Chase following Henley more so than I like Henley following Chase, but there’s still no decision.”
Of course, Texas had its share of problems long before the long delay.
Like two bases-loaded walks by Robinson and Josh Sawyer.
Like average pitching from Kingham, who allowed nine hits and five earned runs in five innings.
Like zero clutch hitting from anyone.
What those factors may have overshadowed magnified was the fact that Arkansas has an excellent team capable of winning this entire thing for the first time in school history. Texas, which has played outstanding baseball the last two months, now has to win six games to win its seventh national championship.
Arkansas was too much, what with 11 players drafted last week to tie Texas Tech for the most by a CWS team. Six of those were pitchers, including Knight, who extended his perfect record to 13-0 by throwing five innings.
Things had gone perfectly for this entire NCAA post-season. Texas won five of its previous six playoff games, never was behind in four of them and trailed for just eight of 54 playoff innings.
Pierce had made nearly every right move, so he should be allowed one questionable one.
A second one, however, could get the Longhorns sent home.