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With fall ball underway, Texas' Tristan Stevens has 'another chip to add on my shoulder'

For Tristan Stevens, what was supposed to be a swan song has turned into an encore.

The Texas pitcher didn't expect to be back for a sixth season of college baseball. He earned his degree in corporate communications back in the spring of 2020. Relating to younger teammates about some music and television shows has become a challenge.

"I feel like my dad right now," Stevens mused last month.

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Texas' Tristan Stevenson is a sixth-year senior who won the most games among all Big 12 pitchers last season and pitched the third-most number of innings in the country. He's back to lend an experienced arm to Texas' weekend rotation.

The right-hander is coming off a breakout season in which he earned all-conference honors and won 11 games, the most in the Big 12. Only two other pitchers in the entire country pitched more than his 111.1 innings last season. At one point, he had pitched to 113 straight batters without issuing a walk. He led the Longhorns to the College World Series and was given the team's Brooks Kieschnick Award after the season.

You'd have thought that Stevens had proven enough, yet he was not selected during Major League Baseball's abbreviated 20-round draft in July. Of the 612 overall picks, seven were Longhorns. Ty Madden (first round, Detroit), Cole Quintanilla (ninth round, Washington) and Kolby Kubichek (18th round, New York Mets) were the only UT pitchers drafted, though.

Since he had a year of eligibility remaining, Stevens had a fallback plan. He later called returning to Texas for another possible shot at the College World Series an "obvious decision."

"I think he was really disappointed that he didn't get drafted ... and didn't have opportunities (to go pro)," UT coach David Pierce said. "He's coming back with a little different edge. ... I think it could play in his favor if he funnels that the right way."

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Texas pitcher Tristan Stevens waves to the crowd at UFCU Disch-Falk Field after he was taken out of the Longhorns' 12-4 win over South Florida in Game 2 of the Austin Super Regional in June.

While speaking to reporters last month, Stevens was asked if he was angry or disappointed about his draft snub. He replied that he was motivated, much like he was when he went to a junior college for a year after not receiving much recruiting interest in high school.

"I've always prided myself with having that little bit of a chip on my shoulder," Stevens said, "With how the draft ended up, that's just another chip to add on my shoulder."

Stevens said that he and fellow sixth-year senior Austin Todd often talk about being Nathan Thornhill's former teammates, or the way that UFCU Disch-Falk Field used to look. The two are clearly joking. Thornhill last pitched here in 2014. 

The self-delivered punchline still lands, though: Stevens and Todd have been around for awhile.

Todd, an outfielder who has used redshirts the past two seasons because of the coronavirus pandemic and shoulder surgery, provides a veteran bat. Stevens will provide a veteran arm. Texas will need both to provide some veteran leadership.

"Our culture as a team, we learn from each other," sophomore infielder Mitchell Daly said. "We encourage all the new guys coming in, go follow guys like (Stevens and Todd). They know what it's about, they know how to work, they know how to win."

Last season, Texas led the country with a 2.93 team ERA. The Longhorns lost an All-American in Madden, but Pierce has plenty of options as he looks to fill out his rotation.

Stevens went 11-3 with a 3.31 ERA. Left-hander Pete Hansen was 9-1 with a 1.88 ERA. Tanner Witt showcased his promise during a lengthy relief appearance against Tennessee in the CWS. Former two-way player Andre Duplantier II will just focus on pitching after sitting out last season with an arm injury. Freshman Joshua Stewart was also rated by MLB.com as a top-200 prospect in the 2021 draft class and Pierce said a couple of transfers could contend for innings, too.

The first chance for the pitchers to prove themselves will come this fall. Last month, Texas began holding fall practices and intrasquad scrimmages.

In addition to stressing details, Pierce said that establishing a bullpen and finding a Friday night starter were among his objectives for the fall. Texas also needs to find a new third baseman and figure out how to divvy up playing time in a crowded outfield.

"It's a process. In this process, we compete a lot," Pierce said. "I want them to learn how to fight for a win in the fall so we always put something on the line."