Get the best Inside Texas has to offer with 21 days of FREE Inside Texas Premium Access! Sign up using the Summer Recruiting Special! Open to new registrants only.
One strike away.
Texas was one strike away from taking game one of the Austin super regional over the USF Bulls, 3-1. Tanner Witt, who up until the ninth inning was dominating Bull hitters in relief of Ty Madden, just needed one more strike to complete the save.
But Drew Brutcher had other ideas. He crushed a 3-2 pitch to Comal St. in right field to tie the game at three.
One out away.
USF was one out away from sending the game to extra innings when Silas Ardoin stepped to the plate. He grounded to short, but Nick Gonzalez could not come up with the play. Ardoin reached on an error, and Eric Kennedy came to the plate.
One game away.
On the first pitch of the at bat, Kennedy hit a fastball from Brad Lord over Roberto Pena’s head in deep center field. Kennedy was almost to second base when David Pierce waived home, and essentially followed, Ardoin for the winning run.
Kennedy’s teammates mobbed him celebrating the 4-3 walk-off win. As a result, Texas is one game away from reaching the College World Series for the 37th time in program history. The double, Kennedy’s second base hit of the night, caused the 7180 at UFCU Disch-Falk Field to erupt in celebration as the jubilant Longhorns tore off Kennedy’s jersey.
“We went over the scouting report, I know he’s fastball-slider,” Kennedy said. “He looked like he was getting ahead of everybody with the fastball, so I just told myself to get ready on time, be ready, and get the head out. Luckily, he gave me a pitch to do it with.”
Longhorn baseball runs in Kennedy’s family. His older brothers, Ben and Nick, both played baseball at Texas, with Ben a member of the Longhorns’ 2014 Omaha team. He knew what an atmosphere like Disch-Falk Field was like before he even played a single inning east of I-35.
But before he was a Longhorn baseball fan, Kennedy was a young kid who had dreams of hitting game-winners. On Saturday, he was able to live out those dreams.
“This is the reason you play college baseball, for experiences and moments like this,” Kennedy said. “This is the kind of moment you dream of as a little kid. As I was walking up to the plate, I was like ‘you were born for this. This is what you’re made for.’”
He continued: “I was visualizing the whole time in the dugout. Mike (Antico) and I were talking like, ‘hey, we’re going to end this right now. We’re going to get out of here. It’s the kind of thing you dream of as a little kid.”
Before his at bat, Kennedy said he thought his head coach should have pinch-run for Ardoin, likely the slowest among Longhorn starters. Pierce considered it, but with two outs he decided to keep his regular catcher on the basepaths in order to maintain the defense and not burn his regular catcher.
When Kennedy slugged the ball over Pena’s head, Pierce never considered putting up a stop sign. Nor did the frantic Disch-Falk crowd. Pierce even started running home in celebration himself, showing off some of the speed once displayed by the former Houston Cougar outfielder.
“I actually could have taken him,” Pierce joked. “I didn’t want to score before him, so I backed off.”
The Longhorns’ status on the brink of another trip to the final eight likely is on the minds of Pierce’s players ahead of Sunday’s game. Texas has handled business well all year, especially over the course of the last month, but even they are sure to get excited at the thought of advancing.
How does Pierce handle this?
“You can never say it’s just another game, because it’s not, but you try to do the same thing you ask your kids to do and think clearly, make the best decisions, and try to put kids in the best situation where they can be successful,” Pierce said. “That’s how you go about it. I’m ready to play again tomorrow, we can do it right now. I’m just pumped up for our team.”
A performance from Tristan Stevens on Sunday similar to the one Madden offered in game one would help put the Longhorns in situations to be successful. In likely his final start at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, Madden pitched 6.2 innings allowing three hits, four walks, and striking out nine. He was replaced by Witt in the seventh and received a raucous ovation from the crowd.
Texas scored in the first inning when Antico walked, stole second, advanced to third on a Mitchell Daly single, and scored as a result of a Zach Zubia ground ball. In the second, Antico drove in Kennedy with an RBI double off the fence in left center.
An essential insurance run was plated in the seventh when Kennedy brought home Trey Faltine with a sacrifice fly. Without that run, USF takes a lead in the ninth following homers from Brutcher and Daniel Cantu instead of tying the game. Without that run, Kennedy doesn’t get the chance to put Texas one game away.
The Longhorns are not overlooking the Bulls despite their status as a four-seed, especially not at this stage of the NCAA tournament.
“If you take one pitch off, they’ll hit you in the mouth,” Kennedy said. “We know we’ve got to refocus. This game doesn’t matter. We’ve got to get onto the next game, next pitch, next at bat, not even worry about what just happened in the past. We’ve got to look towards the future.”
The future is not even one day away, as game one ended about 21 hours before Tristan Stevens is set to toe the rubber. But Texas is one game away from a 37th trip to Nebraska in June, and the second trip of the Pierce era.
“We’re going to free up, and we’re going to play baseball,” Pierce said.