AUSTIN — Before the season, Texas head coach David Pierce was facing a roster unlike any he had coached before. Half of the roster had been part of the team in 2017, half were not. It started out with a stumble, but week by week the pieced together squad battled to the top of the Big 12, followed by a Super Regional.
Facing the best hitting team in Division I in a do-or-die Game 3, Pierce once again had to piece together a win.
Six different pitchers were used today, but junior Matteo Bocchi’s five-inning start was more than Pierce ever could have expected. Despite numerous jams, Pierce’s mixing and matching of relievers resulted in just two Tennessee Tech runs. Texas defeated the Golden Eagles, 5-2, to advance to the College World Series for the record 36th time in program history.
“We’ve had people step up, a guy like Jake McKenzie,” Pierce said. “I told Coach [Sean] Allen about the fifth inning today ‘did you ever think Jake McKenzie would be hitting in the six-hole in Game 3 of the Super Regional for us?’ We both just kind of smiled because that’s what guys are doing.”
Despite the mixing and matching and volatility on the mound, there was some consistency at the plate by a player Pierce called “the best hitter in college baseball when the game is on the line.” Junior Kody Clemens hit his 24th home run of the year in the third inning to give Texas a 3-0 lead. Two batters later, junior DJ Petrinsky, a 2018 newcomer himself, hit a ball into the left field bullpen giving the Horns a 4-0 advantage.
“With nobody on they just tried to attack me,” Clemens said. “I basically stayed in my same approach and got some pitches to hit.”
Bocchi’s performance over his five innings of work was more than Pierce ever expected to get Monday. Following Sunday’s Game 2 win, Pierce said anybody Texas had was available if they wanted to advance to the final eight.
But the junior Italian worked well enough to where just four innings were needed from the bullpen. He successfully escaped one jam in the third, then allowed just one run in another in the fourth.
“As we looked at the plan, I knew that if we could get three out of Matteo everything after that was a bonus,” Pierce said. “We go through the fourth and he’s still throwing quality pitches. We go through the fifth, and we’re not changing it.”
Bocchi may have been short on nerves compared to the rest of his teammates. Though he’s been playing baseball in the United States for more than two years, he doesn’t have the familiarity with the pressure like his teammates.
Following Bocchi’s outing, Pierce turned to Game 2 reliever Blair Henley in the sixth. He couldn’t retire a batter and instead walked two. Junior Josh Sawyer, who didn’t play last year due to injury, retired the left-handed batter he faced. Then, Pierce called on junior Parker Joe Robinson.
Robinson was a player Pierce said earlier in the year he tried to take off scholarship immediately after his hiring. Instead, Robinson reworked his motion to become a ground-ball pitcher. His stuff led to Pierce constantly calling on him in situations with runners on base, and he entered that situation again today.
He allowed one fly ball that scored a run in the sixth. He then got a ground ball to get out of the inning.
“He doesn’t ever get to start clean innings,” Pierce said. “It’s usually bases loaded and nobody out. If he has one out, we basically tell him this is a luxury for you.”
After that two-thirds of an inning, he pitched the seventh and eighth innings where Tennessee Tech could hardly register a threat.
“I try to relax,” Robinson said. “That’s the biggest thing I do when I’m on the mound. I take those big, deep breaths and just know that if you execute your pitches, good things are going to happen. That’s just kind of the way I roll about it.”
It got interesting in the ninth before Texas punched its ticket. Robinson allowed a leadoff single and was replaced by junior Andy McGuire. He could only retire one batter, so Game 1 starter Nolan Kingham was called upon for the final two outs.
Though he loaded the bases, he earned a groundout to David Hamilton at short to end the game and advance the Longhorns to Omaha for the first time under David Pierce.
There were several points during the season when it looked like the end result would not end up reaching the high standards the program has set for itself. Pierce, however, knew the Kansas State series was the turning point was and where his team truly believed in each other.
“At that point, I think everybody just continued to stay with the grind,” Pierce said. “Nobody ever got to the point where we thought they weren’t good. There was so much positive coaching with Coach (Phillip) Miller, Coach Allen, and Coach (Phil) Haig.”
That was just two weeks after previous Texas head coach Augie Garrido passed away at the age of 79. Kansas State helped set its goal. Garrido became their inspiration. “I was rubbing his jersey in the seventh inning,” Pierce said.
Now, Texas heads to a place they are so familiar with in Omaha, but a place Pierce hasn’t been to since he was an assistant at Rice ten years ago.
Pierce takes his team to the final eight well ahead of schedule, especially after the team he pieced together in the off-season struggled out of the gate. He thanked the support the team received from the administration and the fans, but he knows there’s still work to do.
With the win, this prevents Texas from going through a complete senior class without a College World Series appearance. Though just a junior, that significance is not lost on Clemens.
“This is definitely what you could say my class and the class above me have been working for,” Clemens said. “Omaha is the goal. You put in all the work in the offseason. You grind with your teammates. Everything you do in the weight room and on the field you do as a team. You work to get to Omaha.”