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Texas baseball heads to first-place TCU as Big 12's championship race nears the finish line

Texas baseball players Douglas Hodo III, left, and Silas Ardoin celebrate a run scored against Texas Tech at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Sunday. The sixth-ranked Longhorns travel to Fort Worth this weekend for a critical three-game series with third-ranked TCU.

Every year, Texas baseball coach David Pierce believes his team can compete for five championships.

Obviously, there's the national championship that 286 Division I programs opened this spring believing they could win. But there's also prizes to be won along the way in the regionals and super regionals. The Longhorns would love to be the last team standing at the Big 12 tournament later this month, too.

The first championship chase for Texas this season is not only the longest, but it's also one that's reaching its bell lap. With six conference games remaining on the schedule, No. 6 Texas (36-11, 13-5 Big 12) heads to No. 3 TCU (33-10, 15-3) this weekend for a three-game series.

The Horned Frogs and Longhorns are the top two teams in their conference.

"It's truly an opportunity to go play in a super regional setting," Pierce said on Thursday. "Face the challenges of going on the road and see what we're made of."

TCU, which tied for the Big 12 title four years ago, is looking to win its first outright championship since 2015. Texas was last crowned in 2018. 

During that 2018 season, Texas closed out its regular season with a sweep of TCU. In the second-to-last game, the Longhorns kept their title hopes alive with a walk-off homer by All-America slugger Kody Clemens.

"For me, it still seems like it was yesterday," Texas junior pitcher Tristan Stevens said. "A lot of the older guys that got to witness that, we still talk about it. It was this time (of the) year where Kody seemed to put it in another gear for us. 

"Who knows, maybe we have one of those guys step up when it comes this time of the year on our team this year. We'll see what happens."

With both teams eying the Big 12 championship, expect the Horned Frogs and Longhorns to also keep a good eye on the baseball. TCU has walked 258 times this season, which leads the nation. Texas ranks second with 254 free passes.

Texas pitcher Tristan Stevens throws a pitch during a game against Houston in 2018.

Texas was last a top-10 team in walks drawn during the 2014 season. Only one Longhorn in the past six years has ranked in the top 50 in walks. But this season, Mike Antico (41) and Zach Zubia (39) are currently locked in third- and fifth-place ties.

Pierce was quick to point out that the Longhorns' 390 strikeouts this year were too much. He did add, though, that the "good hitters are not getting themselves out early in the count."

"Really just trying to have quality at-bats, every at-bat and not give any at-bats away has been our theme," freshman outfielder Douglas Hodo III said. "I think we're still working on it, but I think it's been better overall."

TCU's walk rate could set up an intriguing showdown on Saturday. Over 68 1/3 innings, Stevens has walked 12 batters. Earlier this spring, he didn't issue a walk over 113 straight plate appearances.

"I just see that as another challenge," he said. "We've already known that they're a disciplined team, but I think I'm a disciplined pitcher and I know what I'm capable of."

In addition to leading the country in walks, TCU is scoring at a clip of 8.4 runs per game. No Big 12 team is averaging more runs. There are only six Division I teams that are scoring more frequently. 

TCU also leads the Big 12 in doubles, triples and stolen bases. Its team ERA of 3.81 is the conference's third-best mark.