Golden: Resurgent Horns must go through Mississippi State ace for CWS finals
Horns have won three straight in Omaha
- Ivan Melendez homered in the ninth inning to key the win.
- Texas still must beat Mississippi State Saturday to earn a trip to the finals.
Texas fought, waited around, fought some more and then lived to play another day.
Well, actually the same day.
After their embarrassing debut last Sunday at the College World Series, the Longhorns finally got to Mississippi State’s pitching staff Friday night with the season hanging in the balance, earning an 8-5 victory in another elimination game in Omaha, Neb.
They're for real, as we found out during the regular season. The struggles of their first night at TD Ameritrade Park are now in the past. The Horns are surging and are in play to make history.
Ivan Melendez, whose torrid six-game home run streak earlier this season seems like forever ago, squared up a meaty ninth-inning fastball for a three-run homer on college baseball’s biggest stage. He skipped around the bases like an 8-year-old who had just homered off his dad in a father-son game.
Melendez’s father was actually in the stands, celebrating with family members in the top of the ninth as Longhorn Nation joined with a victory certainly in hand.
Then the rains came.
Our national college baseball buzz was replaced by an endless stream of NHL playoff highlights on SportsCenter and Horns fans lamenting the loss of a 5-2 eighth-inning lead.
Two hours and 26 minutes later, freshman closer Aaron Nixon regained some shaky footing and finished it out by retiring Scotty Dubrule on a grounder, pulling Texas to within one win of the CWS championship series against Vanderbilt.
After staff ace Ty Madden — working on four days' rest — gave the Horns just what they needed with six innings of four-hit ball, UT head coach David Pierce handed the ball to freshman Tanner Witt, who had thrown 78 pitches in a great 5 2/3 innings against Tennessee on Tuesday.
Witt was game but visibly tired and issued three straight eighth-inning walks, the last one coming with the bases loaded and cutting Texas’ lead to 5-3. Nixon came on and gave up a two-run single to Brad Cumbest, and just like that, the lead was gone.
I liked the call to go with Witt. You dance with who brung ya, even if your dance partner’s legs — and in this case, his arm — are tired.
“To me, it wasn't a tough question,” Pierce said. "He's been that guy in that slot. Our biggest question is after his outing on Tuesday, how much he could go without pushing it. And we probably walked a thin line there. But we're in June right now.”
June is winning time, and to throw someone like Lucas Gordon, Kolby Kubicheck, Palmer Wentzel or Jeremy Southard into an Omaha pressure cooker with runners on base when they haven't been part of the regular rotation — that was a risk Pierce was unwilling to take.
That could all change Saturday night, when he is expected to start Tristan Stevens, on three days' rest after throwing only 58 pitches in an uneven performance against Tennessee. Cole Quintanilla should be ready to go in relief as well after throwing only 22 pitches against Virginia on Thursday night.
Had you told Pierce and pitching coach Sean Allen that they would be faced with possibly pitching an unproven in a tight spot against a terrific lineup with a chance to play in the championship series, they would take that scenario all day long and twice on Sunday. (Or is it Saturday? These days are all running together lately.)
Texas’ latest survival display brought to an end one of the wildest days in CWS history. It began with Vanderbilt forcing a second game against North Carolina State after the defending national champions beat a depleted Wolfpack team that had only 13 players available due to COVID-19 safety protocols.
At least that’s what we thought would happen.
We found out in the final moments of Texas' game, well past midnight, that the Wolfpack had been unceremoniously deemed ineligible to continue in the CWS.
What would have happened had the Wolfpack eliminated Vanderbilt earlier Friday? Would the Commodores have been allowed to reenter the bracket, or would the Texas-Mississippi State winner have been declared the national champion?
The latter makes the most sense. Thankfully, the NCAA wasn’t put in the position to make that call, given the way things have gone lately, from the ill-conceived time limit placed on pitchers and hitters to the questionable calls and horrendous strike zones we’ve witnessed. It would not have ended well.
As for the resurgent Horns, they are starting to resemble the bunch that arrived in Omaha as the favorite to win it all after North Carolina State eliminated top national seed Arkansas. Texas whiffed 21 times in the opening loss to the Bulldogs and their terrific starter-closer duo of Will Bednar and Landon Sims.
Yet there they stood, the winners of three straight elimination games, with the last two coming after nearly six hours in rain delays.
“I like our lineup right now,” Melendez said. “We've been having changes top to bottom, moving people all over. But 1 through 9, we'll compete and battle every pitch.”
Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis was noncommittal on his pitching plans, but anyone with 1% of a brain knows it will be Bednar. Texas knows whom it will have to go through if it is to return to the championship round for the first time since 2009.
“I think they held back their two best arms,” Pierce said. “I think we'll see two guys tomorrow, period.”
No one ever said Omaha would be easy.