Man, that was fun. Zubia and Clemens did what they’ve done all year, Blair Henley delivered his best performance as a Longhorn, and for the first time in four years the Longhorns are in the round of 16. Here’s five thoughts on the exciting weekend.
1. The Starting pitching: Texas’ rotation of Nolan Kingham, Chase Shugart, and Blair Henley were thought to be the strength of the entire pitching staff coming into the 2018 season. For most of the year, they didn’t live up to that expectation. Only one or sometimes two of the three would be on in a given weekend. Often, the bats needed to do a lot of dirty work to make up for the starting pitching’s mistakes.
In the last six games at Disch-Falk Field, the pitching has lived up to the preseason expectations. Over 21 innings of work in the regional, Texas’ starting trio allowed 19 hits, five runs with only two earned, struck out 21 and walked a single batter. When Shugart and Henley learned about their combined walk total at the postgame press conference, they exchanged a celebratory handshake.
Shugart pitched well against an overmatched Texas Southern, but that wouldn’t be his only job of the weekend. Kingham put on a gutsy performance battling sickness against the rival Aggies. Henley, not to be topped, struck out eight and allowed just two unearned runs over 7.1 innings.
When Andy McGuire got into trouble in the ninth, Pierce called on Shugart one more time for the final two outs. After a controversial but correct call that Masen Hibbeler didn’t control a catch among fans in left field to end the game, Shugart composed himself and got strike three to end the game and send Texas to the super regionals.
2. Old Reliables: There’s not much to say at this point about Kody Clemens that hasn’t already been said. In a Golden Spikes caliber season, Clemens came through not only on Friday, nor just on Saturday, but on Sunday as well. With the game tied at two, the count full, two outs, and David Hamilton running from first, Clemens hit a ball down the right field line that allowed Hamilton to come in and score, putting Texas up 3-2. This clutch hit, along with all the other clutch hits all season, have been so important to Texas. The Longhorns don’t sniff the conference championship without Clemens. He truly has been a special player and was one once again tonight.
The man behind him in the order also came through after a brief late-season power lull. Pierce moved the fences in before last season, but some parts of the park didn’t change including deep center field. For someone as strong as Zubia, that didn’t matter. His moonshot to deep left-center was gone as soon as he hit it as evidenced by his bat flip. That home run tied the game in the sixth inning when Hoosier starter Andrew Saalfrank was delivering his best performance of the year. The home run was instrumental in chasing Saalfrank. Zubia and Clemens combined to go 9-for-26 over the three game series with many of those nine hits coming when it mattered most. Tonight, they drove in two of the three Longhorn runs.
3. House money: DJ Petrinsky is a fine hitter for a catcher. The JUCO transfer has shown power throughout the year, but he’s played a good all-around game as a reliable seven-hole hitter. The two behind him, outfielder Tate Shaw and first baseman Jake McKenzie are known better for their plus defense. They brought the bats out during the regional.
Those three combined to hit a sizzling .444 in three games. Like Clemens and Zubia, the hits from these three were timely. Petrinsky brought in the first run of the game, but since he grounded into a double play he was not credited with a RBI.
Why is the offensive production from these three house money? It’s coming at the right time. For much of the year, McKenzie and Shaw were non-factors at the plate. Neither had much power to speak of, and while Shaw possesses good speed, he couldn’t get on base enough to utilize it. This weekend, the eight-nine duo got hot right at a time when it’s important to get hot.
4. David Pierce: It seems like a long time ago, but Texas was 9-9 at one point this year. They were a team that was constantly getting out hit and out pitched. Pierce, however, didn’t let the poor start tank the season. He and his staff made the right adjustments, figured out what the right lineup was, discovered reliable bullpen arms, and made things work down the stretch.
Last season, one run games were Texas’ Achilles heel. Texas just advanced to the super regional in a one run win.
Pierce took on a lot of expectations when he took the Texas job, replacing Augie Garrido. Wherever he was in the list of candidates, he’s looking like the correct choice this year. He admitted after the game he did need some help from his predecessor. Following Hibbeler’s mishap, Pierce said a few words to himself.
“I lost my father-in-law a few years ago, his name was Alfred, I was going ‘Help us out Alfred, Help us out Augie because we know you’re here.’”
Whatever was needed, Shugart made happen. The direction, however, came from Pierce. He’s expertly handled 2018’s ups and downs. He’s running a program that utilizes all the resources available to it. If I had to guess, this won’t be his last super regional.
5. Disch-Falk: The atmosphere in the Longhorns’ home ballpark this weekend was the best it’s been since at least 2013 (my first season covering Longhorn baseball). The Aggies coming to town may have had something to do with it, but with the run this team has been on, Longhorn fans have noticed. Each game the Longhorns played in had a rowdy environment. When the starters needed it most, the crowd helped them out. When the crowd thought the umpires made a mistake, they let them know. When big moments happened, the crowd erupted.
Pierce and the players thanked the burnt orange faithful for the fan support they received this weekend. That might have been the final game at the Disch all season depending on how the Oxford super regional shakes out. If it was, it was a series, and a season, to remember.