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Bohls: Texas baseball team overcomes all obstacles to return to Omaha — yeah, again

Kirk Bohls
Austin American-Statesman
  • East Carolina was seeking its first trip to the CWS, but Texas just knows the way so much better.
  • The Longhorns overcame every challenge and deficit to earn a return trip to Omaha for a 38th time.
  • Not even a five-hour rain delay or crazy fans or big deficits could derail the Longhorns from CWS.

Since it had never been to the College World Series in its 32 NCAA postseason tournament appearances, East Carolina thought it was only right to finally punch its ticket to Omaha.

And it might have done so but for the fact that it’s Texas’ birthright to be there. The Longhorns have squatter's rights there. Texas is there so often, it has a homestead exemption.

So for an NCAA record-extending 38th time, the Longhorns (48-20) will show up Friday at the CWS, where they almost always do. Don’t think so? Try out the fact that this will be the 75th CWS, and Texas has been there more than half the time.

Bohls: No relief for Texas in opening super regional blowout loss to East Carolina

Like that tired old saw, it’s death, taxes and Texas.

The upstart Pirates found out the hard way. They won Game 1 handily Friday and led 7-2 Saturday with two outs and no Longhorns on base in the seventh inning. And lost.

Texas players rush onto the field in the wee hours Monday after their 11-1 win over East Carolina in the deciding third game of the Greenville Super Regional. The Longhorns will make their record 38th trip to the College World Series later this week.

Then late Sunday night, after the North Carolina rains came, Texas shrugged and calmly pounded the Pirates in an 11-1 runaway in soggy Greenville, N.C. Texas scored four runs before the floods — thanks to Ivan Melendez’s three-run homer — and a quick five in the first inning afterward, and the rest was so much window dressing. This one was all over but the shouting in the second inning, but there was plenty of shouting and celebrating after the final out, although Longhorns dog piles are strictly prohibited until a final win at the CWS.

Replay: Texas returns to College World Series after outlasting weather delay, East Carolina

In the end, the No. 9 Longhorns shrugged off every distraction and all obstacles from No. 8 ECU before punching their customary ticket to Omaha.

“You go into Friday, and we get our butts kicked,” coach David Pierce recounted, “and then Saturday, we're down late and just never gave in. And that's kind of been the theme of this team.”

It has.

Not hosting the super regional? Not a problem.

What five-hour rain delay Sunday?

What raucous fanfest in the Jungle, where fans literally drape themselves over the short wall?

What 7-2 deficit in the seventh in Game 2? No one told long-ball hitters Skyler Messinger and Dylan Campbell that was too steep a hill.

What 0-18 record when trailing after seven innings? Thing of the past.

Drop Game 1 by six runs? No sweat.

The Longhorns shrugged it all off like an annoying gnat and withstood every challenge.

All that meant was Texas needed to sweep the next two, which it promptly did. Well, not all that promptly, given the five-hour-plus rain delay. The Pirates were salivating Saturday night with their late five-run lead. But you don’t celebrate beating Texas until the 27th out, especially this explosive team.

Texas' Eric Kenney celebrates a bunt single in the second inning of Sunday night's 11-1 win over East Carolina. The Longhorns lost Game 1 of the super regional but still made it back to Omaha by beating the Pirates back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday.

You want offense? Texas hammered 10 home runs in the three super regional games with seven players getting in on the action. Of the Longhorns’ 27 runs, 16 came via the deep fly.

Seven Longhorns drove in a run or more. Five scored a run. The top of the order? Those four started the game with five hits in five at-bats for six RBIs and scored eight runs.

Golden: How Texas baseball ignored the undertaker to force Game 3 in Greenville

“I feel like we just strung a few hits together,” said Melendez, whose first-inning blast set the tone. “You know I don't like making everything about myself. One through nine, you know we're tough outs.”

He’s right.

Hardly a weak link in the lineup. Heck, No. 9 hitter Trey Faltine homered Sunday, drove in five weekend runs and had seven hits in 14 plate appearances.

And that dangerous lineup gives this team an unshakable confidence even when things go awry.

The Longhorns faced down plenty of adversity in the regular season as well. Their sure-fire No. 3 starter Tanner Witt went down early with Tommy John surgery. No. 2 starter Tristan Stevens, who led the Big 12 with 11 victories last year and pitched a whale of game Sunday with only one run in six innings, all of a sudden couldn’t get anybody out and lost his spot in the rotation.

Closer Aaron Nixon lost everything and was all but banished from the bullpen. Eric Kennedy and Austin Todd both had injuries that sidelined them for a substantial time.

Problems? Nah, they were hiccups.

Bohls: Skyler Messinger fits right in for Texas even if he's not always noticed

“This team is so built for anything that's thrown at us,” Stevens said. “We've known it since the start of the season with all that adversity that we faced. So, honestly, we handled it exactly how we would handle it. Just calm, relaxed, but know what we need to do.”

UT slugger Ivan Melendez gestures to the crowd after his three-run homer in the first inning. It was his 32nd homer of the season. In all, seven Texas players hit 10 home runs over the three super regional games in Greenville, N.C. Of the Longhorns' 27 total runs, 16 came from homers.

Consider that Texas began the season No. 1 and started 11-0, only to stumble and be unranked in three of the major polls as late as May 2, but now has a chance to prove that preseason ranking was ultimately correct.

Texas gets a chance to play in the most familiar bracket ever with fellow Big 12 member and future fellow escapee to the SEC Oklahoma and blood rival Texas A&M as well as a hungry Notre Dame, which was so mad it got snubbed as a host that it took it out on Tennessee and stunned the No. 1 Volunteers.

You want adversity?

Texas, OU and Notre Dame all went on the road and won in very hostile territory. No big deal.

Give Texas major credit. Winning is hard, especially on the road against a Pirates team that had won 22 of 24 games before Sunday.

“We’ve just got a bunch of grinders,” ECU coach Cliff Godwin said. “Texas is full of a bunch of first-round draft picks. They’re so much more talented. We just didn't have enough to get them yesterday.”

Not exactly, but the Longhorns are talented, for sure.

More: Dylan Campbell saves Texas' season with walk-off winner in East Carolina

This just isn’t a perfect Texas team, in part because it goes against type. Pitching isn’t so much an afterthought as it’s Pierce’s third weapon after power up and down the order and sure gloves in the field.

Granted, the Longhorns can boast they have the most brutally efficient and powerful offense in the program’s history and a defense that will compare with the all-time best. But they have a skimpy starting rotation and a deeply flawed bullpen, although neither could derail Texas from another date with Omaha. 

Besides, the Longhorns didn’t want the women’s tennis team and men’s golf team and softballers hogging all the glory.

Texas pitcher Pete Hansen, left, and catcher Silas Ardoin celebrate the super regional title after an 11-1 win Sunday over East Carolina. The Longhorns will open this weekend's College World Series against Notre Dame, which upset No. 1 overall seed Tennessee in their super regional, and could draw Texas A&M in the second game.

So it punished ECU with biceps-popping power, with nine runs in the first two innings, and relied on stingy pitching from Stevens, Travis Sthele and Jared Southard to cement its return to Omaha for the second straight year.

“He’s a guy who wants the ball,” Pierce said of Stevens, “and he’s pretty big in big games.”

There were none bigger than Sunday. Even though he hadn’t won as a starter since April 23, he has responded brilliantly with three saves and an impressive outing against ECU.

Texas will go back to try to complete some unfinished business after falling a win short of the championship series that Mississippi State — a team the Longhorns beat once but fell to twice by one-run margins — eventually won over Vanderbilt.

It almost certainly will face some obstacles there, but for now everything seems to be in its rightful place. Right back in Omaha.