OMAHA — Facing elimination, Florida turned to right-hander Jackson Kowar to keep the Gators’ repeat hopes alive. He didn’t falter.
Kansas City’s first round selection baffled Texas Longhorn hitters during his 6.2 inning, 121 pitch performance. Thirteen of the 27 batters he faced were retired by way of strikeout. A four-run sixth inning boosted by a Jonathan India three-run home run provided more than enough run support for Florida to end Texas’ season in a 6-1 defeat.
Texas faced arguably the two most talented teams in Omaha and were overmatched by both. Arkansas’ potent lineup and Florida’s all-around quality couldn’t be countered by Longhorn head coach David Pierce’s pieced together, tight-knit group.
“As far as today, just pretty good arm we faced,” Texas head coach David Pierce said. “He was on. Good stuff. We just couldn’t come up with that one hit and really one mistake.”
The telling stat of Texas short Omaha trip rests by the name of the team’s superstar. Junior Kody Clemens was 2-for-9 over both games following an offensive performance in the regional and super regional that was no one else in the country approached.
Texas’ pitching didn’t do any favors for the team. Starter Blair Henley allowed one run in his Tuesday outing but lasted just 2.2 innings. He struggled with control and allowed runners to reach base, but was effective in preventing them from scoring.
He was replaced by the Longhorns’ normal No. 2 starter, Chase Shugart. The junior held his own over the third, fourth, and fifth, matching Kowar’s dazzling start. He couldn’t match him in the sixth.
Florida led off the inning with a double, but Shugart retired the next two hitters he faced. Following a two-out walk, Florida’s Nelson Maldonado singled to center to bring in one.
Florida’s best hitter and fifth overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft, Jonathan India, stepped into the batter’s box. Shugart sent a 2-1 pitch to the plate. India punished it.
“The big blow from India, trying to go in, I left it up,” Shugart said. “He’s one of the best hitters in the country and he made me pay for it.”
That made it 5-0, and was more than enough cushion for Kowar. Florida added another home run in the eighth from Nick Horvath pushing the lead to 6-1.
Texas had several opportunities to plate runs of its own throughout the game. The Longhorns ended up 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
“[Kowar] was 95, 96, commanded his fastball,” Clemens said. “Then he had a really good changeup. Coming out of his hands it looked like a fastball to most of us, and he executed it really well.”
The pitching faltered, and the hitting did too. The three players made available after the game, Clemens, Shugart, and senior Jake McKenzie, all showed disappointment on their faces.
The season came to an end, but it came to an end in Omaha. An accomplishment for a program in the midst of a rebuild.
“There’s nobody in this room and nobody in this country who expected this team to be here,” Pierce said. “They did a heck of a job from the start to finish, from the fall ball into early spring. The things that they had to accomplish to get here is incredible.”
There’s a possibility all three Longhorns available to the media completed their final game in burnt orange, assuredly so for the senior McKenzie. Clemens was selected in the third round by the Tigers, and Shugart was selected in the 12th by the Red Sox.
That said, they expressed confidence in the direction the program was going.
“We have a good recruiting class coming in next year,” McKenzie said. “We’re only going to get better from here.”
Pierce himself was optimistic about the future of his program, and also showed an immense amount of pride in his team when addressing the media.
With half the roster playing in their first season at Texas, Omaha never seemed to be in the cards for the Longhorns. Then they won the Big 12 title, followed by the regional, and then the super regional.
“This motivates you and this builds a culture of expectation from our program,” Pierce said. “That’s the beauty of it. Their accomplishments were great, but what they’ve done for Texas athletics and Texas baseball is tremendous.”
It was an impressive coaching job by the Big 12 Coach of the year. Clemens’ 24 home runs on the year were critical to the team’s success and made for one of the more improbable runs to Omaha in Texas’ history.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t pull any wins out here,” Clemens said. “But I think that they’ll remember the fight we had in us all year.”
Jake McKenzie had another memory from 2018.
“I think it’s going to be the year Kody hit 24 bombs,” he said.
Pierce now has confidence from those in his program. His second season at the helm of the Longhorns resulted in a final eight trip. The man who he replaced and whose number he wore during the Longhorns’ College World Series trip, Augie Garrido, didn’t reach the CWS or win 40 games at Texas until his fourth year in Austin.
Pierce did the same in half as many years. Texas now will have to wait another year before it attempts to win a seventh national championship, something they haven’t even had the opportunity to play for since 2009.
“When you get a taste of this, it makes you hungry,” Pierce said.