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An eventful weekend led into an eventful beginning of the week for the No. 3 Texas Longhorns.
After the completion of a Big 12 series Texas took from Oklahoma State, the team traveled by bus across the Red River and back to Austin on Sunday evening. On Monday, around 95 percent of the team received the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine according to head coach David Pierce.
Then on Tuesday, the Longhorns played a baseball game against Incarnate Word. Through all those variables, Texas defeated the Cardinals 5-3
Typical midweek starter Pete Hansen, who threw 39 pitches on Sunday, was not available for Tuesday’s contest. That meant Justin Eckhardt received the start but he only lasted 1.1 innings. He surrendered two runs in the first via a home run from UIW’s Lee Thomas, but Texas fought back to tie it in the second thanks to a Cardinal error and a Douglas Hodo RBI single.
Eckhardt was pulled for Lucas Gordon in the second but was charged with UIW’s third run after nine-hole hitter Trent Koerner singled in a run. Hansen’s absence was felt early and Texas’ bats struggled with runners in scoring position during much of the early portions of the game.
Whether it was the effects of travel, the second dose, or both, Pierce could sense something was off with his team. That made Tuesday’s result a tad more satisfying on the heels of Texas snapping its 16-game win streak on Sunday.
“We looked fatigued, but we did a nice job of just figuring out how to win the game tonight,” Pierce said.
For Texas to avoid the quadrant four loss, a defeat that would have negatively affected its RPI, it needed some stability in the middle portions of the game. That’s where reliever Drew Shifflet stepped in.
Shifflet only recently lowered his arm slot to a sidearm angle. It’s a process Pierce and company have been successful with in the past, but it’s one that typically takes some time. On Tuesday, Shifflet appeared natural with his new fundamentals.
He earned the first win of his UT career after striking out two and allowing three hits in 3.2 shutout innings. In the process, he earned more trust from his head coach.
“I think that was a big step today,” Pierce said. “We’ve seen really short outings, but today was a big step.”
Shifflet entered in a game tied 3-3 in the fourth inning. His performance was one of his best in a Longhorn uniform, but in order to leave with something to show for it he needed help from Texas’ offense.
One Longhorn was stranded on third base in the fourth. Another at second base in the fifth. Shifflet never pitched with a lead until after Zach Zubia worked a full count and singled to center in the sixth. His hit scored Mike Antico and give Texas a lead it would not surrender.
Shifflet retired the first two in the seventh before surrendering a single. He was replaced by Tanner Witt, who along with Aaron Nixon closed out the final 2.1 innings.
“When the game was close, he did a nice job of not only keeping us in the game but not allowing them to score anything,” Pierce said of Shifflet. “I think it merits that opportunity.”
Put more succinctly by Pierce: “I think he’s going to be a piece of that bullpen consistently moving forward.”
The mid-game pitching efforts were notable for Texas’ future prospects, but so was the person who started – or rather didn’t start. Could it mean Hansen is set for a spot in the weekend starting rotation? Probably not based on what Pierce said after the game, but additional appearances on weekends appear in the cards. Especially in weekend series against a team like Texas Tech.
“With a big series coming up and Pete pitching well, it’s important that we have him ready for this weekend as well,” Pierce said.
Another notable difference in Tuesday’s lineup was the presence of Cam Williams. Nine days after his last appearance in the Sunday game versus Abilene Christian, Williams returned to the lineup following what Pierce described as a knee contusion.
Williams only played a few innings by design so he could get back into the swing of things and continue to work toward his full recovery. Unfortunately, Pierce didn’t see everything he wanted from Williams’ 1-for-2 night with an error in the field.
“Wasn’t as pleased with what I was hoping to see,” Pierce said. “He’s still got a little hobble. We’ll just continue to treat it.”
Despite all these events, Texas still defeated its midweek visitor and improved to 23-2 at home. Texas Tech comes calling this weekend, a much tougher task than the Cardinals and with far more implications.
Most of the team will be recovered from their second doses. The final stretch of the season begins this weekend. May baseball begins this weekend. It’s a recipe for an end of the week as eventful as the beginning.