Not only did Texas lead for most of the game Friday against WVU ace Alek Manoah, the Longhorns own ace, Bryce Elder, out-performed him on the mound.
Elder carried a perfect game into the sixth and a no-hitter into the seventh. He was one strike away from completing eight innings with a chance to add one more to a career-high 13 strikeout performance, the most for a Texas pitcher since Taylor Jungmann in 2010.
But WVU pinch-hitter TJ Lake kept battling with a runner on, fouling off close pitches and letting balls pass.
Texas head coach David Pierce and pitching coach Phil Haig called a sinker, but with a full count Elder preferred the slider. Lake took his preference and smashed it over the right field fence, giving WVU a 2-1 lead.
“He just felt like when he did, he just lost a little bit of his focus,” Pierce said. “He felt like he tipped it a little bit right there. Our guys have the option to shake there. He was convicted to that pitch. It just wasn’t the right pitch tonight.”
Despite Elder’s performance that matched or surpassed Manoah, despite grinding across one run against Manoah over seven hits, despite Eric Kennedy’s 4-for-4 night, Texas still came up short and lost the first game of the series to the Mountaineers, 3-2.
“A well-played ballgame on both ends,” Pierce said. “Their bench did a great job. Bryce really made one mistake, and the one mistake got us.”
The Longhorns did as much as they could against a premier college arm to take game one of the Big 12 series, but a few bounces once again didn’t go their way while the few bounces WVU got were enough to take the game.
“That’s the way it’s been for a few weeks, but hopefully it will turn,” Elder said. “If we keep playing like we did tonight, if we always have a chance like we did tonight, it’ll be just fine. It’ll start coming our way.”
Texas came back to tie it with a Ryan Reynolds RBI single in the bottom of the eighth, but WVU’s Marques Inman hit a home run off Matteo Bocchi in the ninth to take the lead. WVU’s Sam Kessler closed out the ninth to earn the save.
Texas had opportunities to put more than one run up against the future first-rounder Manoah, but couldn’t make the most of them. With one out in the second, Tate Shaw sent a fly ball toward the right field foul pole. Zach Zubia was on second, but didn’t position himself properly on the base-path regardless of whether the right fielder caught the ball or not.
After the ball deflected off the wall, Zubia was sent home by Pierce. He was thrown out by several feet.
“You want to score there, and it’s tough to put back-to-back hits against (Manoah), but by position I should have held him,” Pierce said.
The Longhorns had another opportunity in the seventh with a runner on. Masen Hibbeler sent a ball to deep left-center, but WVU left fielder Paul McIntosh tracked it down, caught it, and held onto it after colliding with the wall.
That was one of 14 balls Texas sent to the outfield, with several falling for hits. That easily outnumbers the three balls the Mountaineers sent to the outfield all night.
The only difference is two of those three made it over the fence.
“We gave up three hits and they scored three runs and two home runs,” Pierce said. “It’s checking us out right now. Baseball gods are not in our favor right now. All we can do is be ready to go tomorrow, and our guys will be.”
After Friday’s game, Texas sits at 24-20 overall, 5-10 in the Big 12. Pierce spoke earlier in the week about how his team had realistically gotten what it’s deserved this year, but also had not been the recipient of many positive breaks.
Pierce attributed some of that to his team “not creating our own breaks.” That happened once again Friday, and in order to have any chance to create breaks on Saturday, they’ll have to respond to a 1-0 series hole.
“Now the key is can we handle a one-run loss and be ready to go tomorrow,” Pierce said. “That’s where our maturation has to kick in.”