Texas 6, Virginia 2: Horns survive in Omaha as slumping sluggers come up with timely hits
OMAHA, Neb. — Early Friday morning, both Ivan Melendez and Zach Zubia picked an appropriate place and time to bust out of their hitting slumps.
Melendez broke a late tie with an RBI single and a three-run double from Zubia provided Texas with some insurance in a 6-2 win over Virginia. With the victory inside of TD Ameritrade Park, Texas avoided elimination at the College World Series.
Texas (49-16) now turns its attention to Mississippi State. If UT beats Mississippi State on Friday night and again on Saturday, it will reach the College World Series' championship series.
Texas has been beaten twice by Mississippi State (47-16) this season. One of those losses was a 2-1 setback in the opener for both teams in Omaha.
"I'd say we have the momentum right now," Melendez said. "Mississippi State beat us twice. Now we have to go beat them twice. We're hungry for more."
The scheduled start of Thursday's game was delayed by nearly four hours because of weather, and past midnight it looked like the Longhorns and Cavaliers were destined for extra innings. But with the score tied 2-2 in the eighth inning, Texas got a runner to second base with two outs.
With first base open, Zubia worked a full-count walk. That brought Melendez to the plate.
On the first pitch he saw from Virginia reliever Matt Wyatt, Melendez singled up the middle. Mike Antico scored the go-ahead run without a throw.
Before Melendez's at-bat, UT head coach David Pierce stepped out of his third-base coaching box for a chat. He gave Melendez a quick scouting report on Wyatt. He also attempted to calm his designated hitter's nerves.
"He belongs in this spot and he's a great hitter," Pierce said. "Great hitters want to be in this spot for opportunity. And he just came through."
Melendez was an all-Big 12 honoree this spring, but he had notably struggled in the postseason. He struck out nine times at the Big 12 Tournament, and over five regional and super regional games, he contributed only four hits. In Omaha, he went 1-for-4 with a deep fly out in the loss to Mississippi State and then went hitless in Tuesday's win over Tennessee.
Ahead of Texas' CWS opener, Pierce was asked about Melendez's standing in the Longhorns' lineup. "We wouldn't be here without Ivan," he quickly pointed out, then stated that "as far as I'm concerned, he's our cleanup hitter."
Only a few days after Pierce's vote of confidence, Melendez came through. He also doubled in the second inning and scored the game's first run.
"When you're down, you just have to keep working, keep pushing through," said Melendez, whose 12 home runs lead the team. "That's about it. We never think low; we always stay up."
And with Texas holding a 3-2 lead, Zubia broke the game open in the top of the ninth inning. Like in the eighth, he worked a full count with the bases loaded. This time against Cavalier right-hander Zach Messinger, Zubia brought in all three teammates with his 11th double of the season.
Like Melendez, Zubia had been struggling as of late. Over his first 11 plate appearances in Omaha, he'd drawn just one walk. A starter on a 2018 Texas team that reached Omaha, Zubia entered the NCAA Tournament with a .305 batting average. But that had slipped to .287 before his big ninth-inning at-bat.
"I'm going to be the first one to say, obviously, my College World Series start hasn't been the greatest," Zubia said. "But that's just a credit to my teammates, to my coaches, just to have my back, keeping me mentally right, keep on telling me that you're going to come up in a big situation. And obviously that's what happened."
He then asked: "Who doesn't like a bases-clearing double at the very end of a game to kind of solidify a win?"
Pete Hansen started for Texas, but relief pitcher Cole Quintanilla earned the win. A fourth-year sophomore who redshirted in 2018, he allowed two hits in 1 2/3 innings of relief.
Quintanilla was replaced by Aaron Nixon with one out in the eighth. Nixon hit the first batter he faced but quickly got an inning-ending double play. Before shutting the door on the Cavaliers (36-27) and securing the ninth save, the freshman did surrender a two-out single.
"I just want to say certainly Texas has a terrific ball club," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "You can see why they're the No. 2 overall seed. They're very talented in many different ways."
Around the bases: When asked if staff ace Ty Madden would start against Mississippi State on Friday, Pierce said there is a "pretty good percentage that that's going to happen." ... Hansen allowed five hits and two runs over a start that lasted 5 2/3 innings. ... The Longhorns struck out eight times against Virginia starter Mike Vasil. ... Texas catcher Silas Ardoin threw out two Cavaliers who were attempting to steal a base.