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Bohls: Longhorns fall short in Omaha but finished strong with more to prove

Texas players console one another after Saturday night's 4-3 loss to Mississippi State ended their season at the College World Series. The Longhorns, who won the Big 12 championship, were 50-17 this year.
  • Texas finished the season the same way it began but had tons of success in between.
  • A third-place finish and strong returning nucleus spells success in near future.
  • The Longhorns should return up to five starters and several of the top pitchers like Tanner Witt.

The Longhorns' baseball season ended exactly as it started.

With a tough loss to Mississippi State.

One came in Arlington on a chilly February day, the other in rain-wracked Omaha in late June.

Sandwiched in between were an eye-popping 50 wins, a dominant Big 12 championship and 11 series wins in 12 chances. 

Oh, and one helluva ride at the College World Series, where a 4-3 heartbreaking loss to those same Bulldogs on Saturday night halted Texas’ chances at a seventh national championship and the school’s first since 2005 but did nothing to diminish a terrific season. Third place on this stage is still impressive.

David Pierce and this gifted Texas team restored the standard for arguably the best college baseball program in the nation now that it seems USC barely plays the sport anymore.

No school has been to the CWS more than Texas’ 37 appearances. No program has more wins than Texas’ 88 there, about two seasons’ worth of victories for even the best programs in the land. 

And this 50-win season? It was the 25th time the Longhorns (50-17) have checked that box and their most victories in a single season since 2010.

Miami coach Ron Fraser once almost choked at the pre-CWS dais press conference when Texas coach Cliff Gustafson, with a straight face, remarked on how his 1982 club had suffered some dips during the regular season. 

The Horns were 57-5 at that point. Some dips.

Mississippi State outfielder Tanner Allen watches Cam Williams' home run go into the stands in the second inning at TD Ameritrade Park on Saturday.

But that’s the measuring stick for this proud program, and Pierce, in his fourth full season, has taken the Longhorns to Omaha twice and to the brink of the championship series this year.

More:Mississippi State 4, Texas 3: Longhorns' season ends in College World Series semifinals

Texas didn’t play great baseball at TD Ameritrade Park on Saturday night. Douglas Hodo III popped up a bunt with a man on, and Trey Faltine failed to advance a runner after Hodo’s fifth-inning leadoff double. And they weren’t all that lucky, especially on a chopper over third baseman Cam Williams’ head for a game-tying hit.

But Cole Quintanilla was spectacular in his three-plus innings of relief, striking out five and bailing Texas out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam with some electric stuff. He was untouchable until he plunked a batter in the ninth, watched him steal second and gave up the game-winning single to a defensive replacement, of all people, with Tanner Leggett’s hit into left-center. 

Gutsy starter Tristan Stevens, remarkably consistent all year long as an All-Big 12 pitcher, was effective enough on just three days’ rest, pitching into the sixth.

More:Bohls: Longhorns win again, looking to finish strong in the CWS

And that infield. It has to rank among the best of all time the way Faltine and Mitchell Daly pick it. They’re so relentless, they could stop a sunset. Together, they turned three more double plays in Saturday’s game to give Texas 57 on the year, second most in the nation.

Texas catcher Silas Ardoin forces Mississippi State's Luke Hancock out at home in the sixth inning of the Longhorns' 4-3 loss Saturday night at the College World Series.

Collectively, it was the best Texas team in more than a decade, offering a better offense than most in that span with a perfect blend of power and speed. Texas won every series it played against the likes of TCU and South Carolina but one, losing only to Texas Tech.

More:Golden: Resurgent Horns must go through Mississippi State ace for CWS finals

“This group is incredible,” Pierce said. “I’ll remember the grit, the toughness, the never-give-up mentality, the energy, the talent. So many words you can use to describe this group, and they’re all positive.”

Yeah, they fell short with a pair of one-run losses to arguably the best and most balanced team in Omaha. Even so, it will be an all-SEC championship series with seventh-seeded Mississippi State versus fourth-seeded and defending champion Vanderbilt. MSU won in a walk-off fashion over Texas, and Vandy won in a walk-over against North Carolina State when the Wolfpack were unceremoniously relegated out of the tournament for COVID-19 issues that depleted their roster.

But Texas fought hard.

It’s tough to win a game of this magnitude when you get only four hits and strike out 11 times, but the Horns were facing elite pitching in Mississippi State’s Will Bednar and closer Landon Sims.

Texas’ offense stalled for much of its five games in Omaha, surviving three elimination games after that CWS-opening loss last Sunday to Bednar with those frankly humiliating, CWS-record 21 strikeouts. But the Longhorns didn’t let that failure define them, rallying behind near-flawless defense; brilliant pitching from Ty Madden, Pete Hansen, Tanner Witt and, on Saturday, Quintanilla; and clutch hits from Zach Zubia, Ivan Melendez, Eric Kennedy, Mike Antico and, in the final game, Williams.

Mississippi State infielder Tanner Leggett celebrates with a teammate after hitting the walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat Texas 4-3. The Bulldogs' best-of-three championship series against Vanderbilt begins Monday.

For all their ineptitude at the plate at times — they struck out 62 times in five CWS games — the Longhorns still scored big in an 8-5 survival game win over the Bulldogs late Friday night into Saturday morning and had to literally weather one long rain delay after another this week.

They had the wherewithal to get past Tennessee, Virginia and Mississippi State in three consecutive high-pressure, win-or-go home contests. But Bednar and Sims were too much. They got two runs on Williams’ blast over the right field fence in the second inning but plated just one more in the last seven frames. From the sixth inning on, only Williams reached base by a hit, his opposite-field single in the seventh.

“We ran into some great pitching,” said Antico, the graduate transfer from St. John’s, who had an RBI double Saturday and six Omaha hits and might have been the MVP of the Series if Texas could have advanced. “We definitely had some moments, but we had a hard time getting the offense going.”

That said, the Longhorns were a legitimate threat to win the whole thing, and they served notice that Texas is back in a big way.

Texas second baseman Mitchell Daly fields a ground ball during Saturday's 4-3 Mississippi State victory.

A solid nucleus returns for 2022 with true or redshirt freshmen in Faltine, Daly, Hodo and outstanding catcher Silas Ardoin along with possibly Melendez, who's a junior, at a corner spot and Kennedy in left.

On the mound, likely top-20 draft pick Madden and fifth-year Stevens will certainly depart as will Quintanilla, but Witt seems poised to claim the ace role alongside Hansen — who is draft-eligible but probably will return — and closer Aaron Nixon or Lucas Gordon could make a bid for the rotation as well.

“The future’s bright,” Pierce said. “We’ve got a great recruiting class coming in. We’ve got two big freshmen in Witt and Nixon. Look at Gordon. He’s right there close to being the next weekend guy.”

The Longhorns will have options. They always do. But it sure seems many parts are in place.

“They set this standard,” Pierce said. “When we got here in 2017, we absorbed a 24-31 team that really didn’t know how to win. We started creating that last spring, but this group has created that true standard we’re looking for.”

Now if they can only create a few more hits to go with it, look out.