'This is what I wanted': Tristan Stevens leads Texas back to Omaha with a standout start
GREENVILLE, N.C. — For a little while, it seemed as if Tristan Stevens' story would end with a wild pitch.
In the seventh inning of a must-win game Saturday at the Greenville Super Regional, Stevens let go of a pitch that Texas catcher Silas Ardoin couldn't corral. East Carolina scored on the wild pitch and took a 7-2 lead. Not long after that, UT coach David Pierce made the long walk from the dugout to the mound to pull Stevens.
The end, right?
In his heart, Stevens believed that was wrong. The sixth-year senior who grew up in Missouri as a diehard Longhorns fan knew he couldn't possibly go out like that. And it turned out he was right.
Texas went on to rally for a 9-8 win Saturday. Stevens then took advantage of a chance to write an even happier ending Sunday.
Led by his strong start, Texas rolled to an 11-1 win over East Carolina in the decisive third game. Due to two weather delays at Clark-LeClair Stadium, the game that was originally scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. didn't end until well after midnight. But when Jared Southard struck out Zach Agnos at 1:30 a.m., the Longhorns celebrated the program's 38th trip to the College World Series.
"This is exactly why I came back is to help this team get to Omaha and win a championship," Stevens said. "Getting the opportunity to do that tonight, it made everything I've ever worked for all worth it."
After Saturday's come-from-behind win, Pierce told reporters that he didn't know who'd start for Texas in the winner-takes-all Sunday finale. All options were on the table, though.
Over breakfast on Sunday, Pierce and assistant coach Sean Allen settled on Stevens. Pierce believed Stevens could give the Longhorns three innings. Maybe he could be extended to five. Either way, Pierce believed that "if we're going to get beat, it's going to be with a guy that we've depended on all year."
Allen texted Stevens that he was getting the start. Stevens said he was "so pumped" and immediately called his parents, who reminded him that this opportunity was why he returned to Texas this season.
Stevens ended up pitching six innings. He allowed five hits and issued three walks. East Carolina scored on a first-inning sacrifice fly, but that would be the only time the Pirates reached home. By the time Stevens was lifted, Texas led 10-1 and Omaha was imminent.
"I thought Tristan poured his heart out on the mound," Pierce said.
This was the second straight year that Stevens was the pitcher of record in Texas' CWS-clinching win. Last year, the all-conference pitcher beat South Florida in the super regionals to help the Longhorns advance.
Stevens opened this season as UT's No. 2 starter but struggled in that role. He eventually shifted to a gig in the bullpen. In his first start since April 30, Stevens threw a season-high 101 pitches Sunday.
"Unbelievable job tonight my man," tweeted Austin Wood, the former Longhorn who famously threw 169 pitches in a historic regional win over Boston College in 2009.
Stevens' 101-pitch outing capped a weekend in which he also threw 23 pitches over two short relief appearances Friday and Saturday. Additionally, he had to warm up three times Sunday because of delays that first pushed back the game's start by 65 minutes and then stalled everything for nearly five hours in the first inning.
"The staff did a really good job of helping take care of all my arm, whether it was heating it up, moving my arm around," Stevens said. "I didn't need a lot to get going tonight with what was at stake. This is what I wanted."
Stevens got all of the run support he needed when Ivan Melendez hit a three-run home run and Skyler Messinger contributed an RBI single in the first inning. Texas then scored five more runs in the second.
Even though those offensive outbursts were only an inning apart, it took Texas more than five hours to turn its 4-0 lead into a 9-1 advantage. With Texas leading by four runs in the top of the first, a weather delay went into effect at 5:25 p.m. Play didn't resume until around 10:15.
Texas (47-20) will face Notre Dame (40-15) in its opener in Omaha. Last year, the Longhorns fell one win short of the CWS championship series.
East Carolina finished its season with a 46-21 record. The Pirates were attempting to reach the College World Series for the first time.
"They come out and punch us in the mouth right to start with. They do that again as soon as we came back from the rain delay," East Carolina outfielder Bryson Worrell said. "And we really didn't get it going offensively pretty much the whole day."