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Pitching roles were up for grabs ahead of the 2021 Texas Longhorns baseball season, save for Ty Madden’s presence on Friday nights. The rest of the weekend starting jobs were not set in stone, and who Texas head coach David Pierce would give the ball to on Saturdays and Sundays were huge questions facing a team returning most of its roster.
Tristan Stevens dreamed of filling one of those weekend roles. Despite growing up in Missouri, Stevens shared Thursday he had been a Longhorn fan dating back to when Vince Young crossed the goal line in Pasadena in 2006.
“When I would tell people growing up that I want to play at the University of Texas, they’d always be like ‘well, okay. That’s awesome buddy,’” Stevens said Thursday.
Prior to 2021, Stevens was not a weekend arm. He was not even a starter. He played the role of a spot reliever, often called out of the bullpen in sticky situations. But the weekend was where he wanted to be, and his family-inspired hard work has made him part of an effective 1-2 punch for the Longhorns to open weekend series.
When the 2020 season was cancelled, Stevens was not sure if he would ever pitch at the collegiate level again. He appeared in eight games and considered the possibility of his 0.2 inning performance versus Cal State-Fullerton being his last in a Longhorn uniform. Luckily, the NCAA’s granting of an additional year of eligibility meant Stevens had another chance, and he worked tirelessly to compete for a weekend role.
“I think it’s probably more, what hasn’t he done?” Texas pitching coach Sean Allen said Tuesday.
Allen praised Stevens for his hard work not just during the shutdown, but every day during the season. He mentioned he sees Stevens doing “dry work” during the week, refining and focusing on his pitching mechanics without the use of a ball. He also mentioned how well Stevens takes care of his body and called him an “absolute freak when it comes to flexibility.
Where does he get that work ethic from? His brother, Ryan, a former pitcher at Lipscomb University who is preparing to head to San Diego for Navy SEAL training. The effort Stevens puts in is noticed by both his coaches and teammates, and sometimes he is a tad too intense for them.
“Because I always had him and grew up with him, I didn’t realize that his work ethic was considered working hard,” Stevens said of his brother. “For me, that was just the standard that our family put. I didn’t realize I had an elite work ethic until I got to be around other people, and they’re like ‘hey man.’ Sometimes for me I need to ease it up a little bit more than tune it up a notch.”
Stevens worked and worked, but there were questions about his ability as a starter that would not be answered until the season. After Tommy John surgery in 2017 and three years at Texas with a career long outing of 2.0 innings, it was not clear how Stevens would perform on second and third times through the order.
But as his ledger shows, he has remained on an ascendent trajectory. He has thrown at least 6.0 innings in every single one of his outings since UT’s loss at Houston on March 6. He has issued six walks total in conference play, including a three-start stretch versus Kansas, Kansas State, and Abilene Christian where he did not allow a single batter to reach via base on balls. He has struck out at least six in four Big 12 starts often using his slider for strike three.
“He comes in here with a slider,” Allen said. “His sinker was solid, but in those short leverage outings that he’s been in his entire career, you’re going to rely heavily on your best pitch, and it’s a swing and miss pitch.”
He answered every question about his ability to go deep into ballgames and became one of the most efficient arms in the conference.
“It didn’t really matter what role I was in, I just knew that I was good enough to dominate at this level,” Stevens said. “Whether that was going to be as a reliever like I have been or as a starter, I knew what I was capable of bringing to the table. I was given the opportunity to start and I just ran with it.”
As a result, Madden and Stevens give Texas an excellent chance to win each series before the first pitch is even thrown on Sunday. The two’s relationship has grown over the course of the season, and Madden mentioned they are able to be brutally honest with each other. Stevens will sometimes tell Madden he needs to provide better effort. Madden will chime in at certain points and say Stevens needs to make better pitches. What they have done together has led to Big 12 regular season title contention for Texas.
“It really is something special that UT fans are able to see,” Madden said in April.
Coming from out of state, Stevens knew he would have to work hard and earn the respect of plenty of players who grew up facing each other in the state of Texas. He saw former Longhorn Mark Payton, originally from Chicago, as an example of how an out of state player could succeed at Texas.
His work has placed him in high regard among his teammates, just like Payton during his time on the Forty Acres. Thanks to preparation and efficient pitching, Stevens enjoys every time he toes the rubber on Saturday.
“To actually be here now and be in the situation we’re in, it means a lot,” Stevens said.