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College World Series: Longhorns eager for rematch of season opener vs. Mississippi State

After wins this baseball season, Texas teammates Zach Zubia and Cam Williams have tried to celebrate together.

Zubia is a veteran first baseman for the Longhorns. Williams is the third baseman known as “Hammer” to fans and teammates alike. And if Texas is playing defense when the final out is recorded, the two will run across the infield and meet for a leaping high-five.

Zubia explained that this is just a simple and fun way to celebrate a Texas triumph. Admittedly, Zubia noted that he and Williams have gotten less air on their celebratory leaps as the long season has dragged on.

On Sunday night, Texas (47-15) will open its 37th appearance at the College World Series with a game against Mississippi State. If Texas can record a few more wins — and a few more leaps for Zubia and Williams — it will be a national champion for the first time since 2005.

"This is the pinnacle of college baseball," Zubia said. "We are super excited to be here as a team. Super excited personally to be here. It's unfinished business now."

Zach Zubia, left, and Cam Williams celebrate with a leaping high-five after last weekend's victory over South Florida that put them in the College World Series.

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Earlier this season, Zubia and Williams had a chance to high-five after a game against this same Mississippi State team. But it was the Bulldogs who ended up celebrating on Feb. 20.

Four months ago, Texas and Mississippi State opened their seasons at Arlington's Globe Life Field as part of the 2021 College Baseball Showdown. Mississippi State earned an 8-3 victory.

The loss was the first pothole in what would be a rocky start to UT’s 2021 campaign. Texas also lost to Arkansas and Ole Miss in Arlington. The 0-3 start was the first for Texas since 2006.

"We just remember that we got run up and down the field pretty much," Zubia said. "I think that's helped us become the team that we are today. We learned from the mistakes up there. We learned what it was going to take to compete with the biggest teams on the biggest stage.”

UT was outscored 20-4 over those three losses, but the Longhorns had reasons not to be alarmed. First off, Texas has started slowly before. Zubia played three years ago for a College World Series qualifier that had a 9-9 record at one point. In 2014, Texas began the year with two losses to Cal but still reached Omaha.

This February, Texas also opened its season at the tail end of a week in which winter storms across the state prevented the team from practicing. The start of the showcase in Arlington was even delayed a day because of that weather.

"Like we said after the first weekend, that wasn't the team that we knew we could be," pitcher Tristan Stevens said. "We just put our heads down and went to work."

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Texas coach David Pierce has been hesitant to refer to the Mississippi State rematch as a revenge game. Zubia added that “we don't like to make it about anyone but our team."

But Texas will still get a chance to atone for itself. 

Ty Madden, who allowed three earned runs over four innings in February, is Sunday’s probable starter. With the exceptions of right fielder Douglas Hodo III and second baseman Mitchell Daly, there shouldn’t be much variance in the lineup that Texas used the first time. Four months ago, four Mississippi State pitchers combined to strike out 18 Longhorns.

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On Sunday, Texas will reunite with a Bulldogs team that is 45-16. They have made each of the College World Series’ last three fields.

Mississippi State placed second in the SEC West’s regular-season standings. Offensively, the Bulldogs rank 36th nationally in scoring (7.1 runs per game) and 67th in batting average (.282). Their 4.05 ERA is the fifth-best among the eight teams in Omaha. Going into this week, Mississippi State was one of two teams whose pitchers had struck out at least 700.

"They have struck out 744 hitters this year. To put that in perspective, we've struck out (528), and we've got a very good pitching staff," Pierce said.

In February, Mississippi State had Christian MacLeod and Landon Sims pitch eight of its nine innings against Texas. Will Bednar is the expected starter for the rematch. Bednar (7-1, 3.53 ERA) is the No. 36 prospect on MLB.com’s ranking of the top talents in the 2021 draft class. Madden (7-4, 2.41) is listed ninth.

“He's got potential first-two-round stuff," Pierce said of Bednar. "He pitches with emotion and aggression."

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