Top five moments from the 2018 baseball season

Kody Clemens (Will Gallagher/IT)
Kody Clemens (Will Gallagher/IT)

After a week of sleeping on an air mattress in suburban Omaha, it was nice to finally be in my own bed late last night. Before I dozed off, I did a short mental recap of Texas’ baseball season.

I got to see a lot of it. I saw several different ballparks on the road including the home stadiums of LSU, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech.

2018 will be remembered as one of Texas’ most improbable run to Omaha. Here were my top moments of the year.

Oklahoma’s Breakdown(s)

Texas went to Norman in mid-April to take on the top 20 Oklahoma Sooners. OU was riding high at 8-1 in conference play, while Texas went north of the Red River with a 4-6 record away from Disch-Falk Field.

Texas seemed to be in a hole before the first pitch of the series was thrown. Junior Nolan Kingham was scratched from his Friday start for not adhering to the team’s academic policy. Freshman Bryce Elder was called upon to replace him. Elder pitched 5.0 innings on a day he didn’t expect to get the ball, but still allowed four earned runs. Fellow freshman Kamron Fields relieved him and allowed two.

That put the Longhorns in a 6-3 deficit heading into the eighth and ninth, but with power in the lineup and a strong wind, anything could happen.

Junior Matteo Bocchi kept the Sooners quiet in the eighth, setting up Texas’ final at bat while trailing 6-4.

Sophomore Duke Ellis singled after junior DJ Petrinsky’s leadoff walk, setting up the Longhorns with two on and nobody out. Junior Tate Shaw followed senior Jake McKenzie’s strikeout with a single to left that scored pinch runner Michael McCann to make it 6-5 OU.

Junior Masen Hibbeler pulled a double to left center to score two and give the Longhorns a 7-6 lead.

Junior Andy McGuire took the mound in the ninth. He allowed a single then two fielder’s choices before striking out the final batter of the game.

Texas pulled another come-from-behind victory the following night. In what was a common theme for much of the year, Texas’ opponent put up three early runs on Chase Shugart. He settled in for the next four innings, allowing Texas to slowly work their way back into the game.

Kingham then relieved Shugart in the sixth and dominated Sooner hitters. He struck out six over four innings of relief and kept the game knotted at three.

In the eighth, Zubia stepped to the plate with Clemens on. Once again, he crushed a ball to give Texas the lead late in Norman.

Both teams waited quite a while for that home run, as Oklahoma altered the time of the first pitch to allow for Kyler Murray to play in both the football spring game in the morning and the evening’s baseball game.

An exhausted Murray went 0-5 reaching only on a fielder’s choice.

Kingham recorded the final three outs to give Texas a huge series win over a top 20 team and the school’s biggest rival in the middle of one of its best seasons.

It was one of the first signs of the season the team was as resilient as they could be, and though there was a stumble or two in the next couple of weeks, the team had confidence they could beat anyone after losing to other top 20 teams earlier in the year.

McKenzie’s trip around the diamond

It takes a special skillset to be able to play all nine positions on the diamond. It takes a special ability (and coach) to play all nine in one game. It takes a little luck to do it in just seven innings.

During his career, McKenzie had seen time at eight positions. The only one he lacked was behind the plate.

In the first, he caught Tristan Stevens. He moved around the diamond inning-by-inning, moving up the numbered positions. First base in the second. Second base in the third. So on and so forth.

Jake McKenzie (Will Gallagher/IT)
Jake McKenzie (Will Gallagher/IT)

Texas put up seven runs in the second against UT-RGV to make Pierce’s job a little bit easier. Instead of having to worry so much about specific tactics to defeat an opponent, he could make sure he threw the correct arms and got McKenzie to each spot.

When Texas scored five more in the fifth inning, it made things a lot more difficult. Texas was at risk of run-ruling the Vaqueros, so Pierce had to expedite McKenzie’s trip.

In the sixth, he played the first one-third of the inning in left. He moved to center until out No. 2 was recorded, then moved to right for the final out of the sixth.

The seventh was supposed to be all his, but the fact that McKenzie was due up second in the bottom of the sixth made the task difficult. After he was retired for the bottom of the sixth’s second out, he raced to the bullpen to try and get some sort of a warm-up in.

Chris Fearon recorded the first out of the inning before Pierce made the call to the bullpen. McKenzie had completed the task of playing all nine positions in a seven-inning game. Now he just needed to complete the seventh inning.

He earned one fly out before walking two. Assuredly exhausted, McKenzie said following the game he was pitching without much control on his breaking ball as he couldn’t get a feel for it warming up.

There was a little drama as the bases were loaded, but he earned a fly out to right to end the shortened mid-week affair.

McKenzie received a standing ovation and curtain call from the smaller mid-week crowd, but he had put on one of the more entertaining performances in college baseball in 2018.

Hamilton hammers his hometown team

Texas’ last three midweek games came against its neighbor to the south, the Texas State Bobcats. The Longhorns were preparing for their important weekend series against Texas Tech, but might have been caught looking past the Bobcats.

It would be a tough game to drop against a non-P5 opponent that late while looking to host, and therefore fresher on the committee’s minds.

Texas State was up 10-6 heading into the ninth inning, and the Longhorns didn’t look like they would be in any position to fight back into the game.

Texas added one, then a walk to Zubia loaded the bases for David Hamilton

Hamilton, a San Marcos native, stepped to the plate. He only had two home runs all season, needing one more to make it to Pierce’s pre-season prediction of three.

Hamilton looked at strike two to load the count full, then fouled off another to stay alive. He pulled a 3-2 pitch to the right of the scoreboard in deep right-center, allowing the Longhorns to escape with an 11-10 win.

Two from Texas Tech

The Longhorns went to Lubbock ahead of the Red Raiders by one game in the Big 12 standings, but the chances they would leave town still ahead of Texas Tech seemed low. Tim Tadlock’s squad had lost only two games at Rip Griffin Park all season and won every series they played at home.

Texas Baseball (Emily Lewallen/IT)
Texas Baseball (Emily Lewallen/IT)

Kingham’s final line may not have been impressive, but the Friday performance he turned in was. Though he allowed 11 hits and six runs, his 127 pitches saved the Longhorn bullpen in a series where it would eventually be needed.

Oh yeah, there was the offense.

Shaw brought home one in the second to tie it, then Texas took the lead in the third. Hamilton knocked a three-run shot then Petrinsky hit his own two-run blast, giving Texas a 7-1 lead.

The Red Raiders didn’t go down quietly, as they mounted a comeback in the seventh to make it 8-6. Texas put up four in the eighth and ninth, one coming by way of yet another Clemens home run, to give Texas the first game.

The Longhorns dropped game two as Texas Tech returned to form. Shugart struggled, allowing eight earned runs, while junior Beau Ridgeway allowed five earned in his 1.2 innings of work.

Game three was a slugfest. Tech took an early lead, then Texas took it right back. It went back to the Red Raiders in the sixth, but it would only last one half-inning.

Clemens hit a home run to tie the game at four, and Zubia hit one of his own two batters later to bring home two and make it a 6-4 game. Texas added one more in the eighth, but so did the Red Raiders.

The ninth was a thriller, but it ended going Texas’ way.  McGuire took the hill to try and earn his seventh save. Tech put two runners by way of walk and a single, and the winning run came to the plate.

In Rip Griffin Park, any ball that gets up in a hurry has a chance of getting out just as fast. The Lubbock wind often blows toward the outfield, and paired with strong hitters and friendly dimensions, McGuire was in a situation he wanted to originally avoid.

Zach Rheams stepped to the plate. Batting near .350 and with double digit home runs to his name, the game could have quickly gone from the Longhorns’ favor to the Red Raiders.

With a 1-2 count, Rheams swing couldn’t find the ball as it went into Petrinsky’s glove, and the Longhorns escaped with a series victory over the top rated team in the conference.

The Kody Clemens Show

Texas welcomed TCU to Austin during the last week of the season. Oklahoma State, who Texas took two-of-three from earlier in the year, held a two game lead in the Big 12. The Cowboys welcomed Texas Tech, who couldn’t win the regular season title but still had plenty to play for.

Texas won game one thanks to Kingham’s performance and picked up a game on the Cowboys thanks to a TTU win, but Clemens stayed quiet. He would roar in game two.

Texas trailed TCU 3-1 heading into the fifth inning of the second game, but Clemens’ home run to deep right tied the game at three. Parker Joe Robinson and Josh Sawyer pitched the sixth, seventh, and eighth scoreless, and McGuire kept the ninth quiet to give Texas a chance to win it with Clemens coming to the plate.

Kody Clemens (Will Gallagher/IT)
Kody Clemens (Will Gallagher/IT)

Ellis reached base ahead of him and Clemens repeated what he so often did during the year, sending a deep home run over the right field fence to win the game, giving Texas a chance to win the conference the following day.

They did that with help from, of course, another Clemens home run.

Though Texas and Clemens were silent offensively as the one seed in the Big 12 tournament, Clemens returned to form upon his return to Disch-Falk Field for the NCAA regional.

The 10-0 defeat of Texas Southern? Two Clemens RBI.

The 8-3 defeat of rival Texas A&M? Two Clemens home runs, four RBI.

The regional clinching 3-2 win over Indiana? Clemens knocked in the game winning RBI with a double in the seventh.

He simply didn’t stop.

He homered in the loss to Tennessee Tech in game one of the super regional. He went 2-for-4 with 2 RBI and a home run in the game two win, setting up a deciding game three.

Tennessee Tech didn’t learn anything from the rest of the postseason.

After TTU head coach Matt Bragga joked about intentionally walking Clemens following game two, he pitched to him his first at bat of game three. Clemens homered and Texas went on to advance to Omaha.

Clemens finished the season batting .351, 110 points higher than his 2017 average. He added 15 doubles, 24 home runs, and 72 RBI. He finished as a first team All-American in several publications, and was a finalist for the Dick Howser Trophy and the yet to be awarded Golden Spikes Award.

His 2018 will go down as one of the best individual seasons in the long history of Longhorns baseball, and his clutch ability down the stretch helped boost the Longhorns to a College World Series appearance.