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HOUSTON — Prior to 2019, David Pierce’s resume only included success. He won five regular season conference championships in his first seven seasons as a head coach, including one at each of his three stops. He reached Omaha in 2018 with the Longhorns and was honored as Baseball America’s College Coach of the Year.
But then, last season happened. Texas couldn’t reproduce the magical ride of 2018. Injuries, failure in all three phases, and more consistent struggles put Pierce through the most difficult season of his career. He tried everything, including several out of the ordinary things for him – naming captains, coaching third base – to try and end the funk. It still ended with a 27-27 record, abysmal for six-time national champion Texas.
So when the 2020 Longhorns started 9-0 with first-year players all over the diamond and experienced starting pitching, he had to have been thrilled. A loss Friday in Houston versus No. 11 LSU could have dampened how he felt about this year’s team, but an 8-7 win Saturday over sixth ranked Arkansas illustrated what has him so excited about this year.
“Man, I love this team,” Pierce said.
He had hoped following the loss to LSU his team would show up “ticked off” Saturday. Judging by the first two innings, they did.
Texas punished Arkansas’ four errors in the first two frames for its eight-run total. Two scored in the first thanks to junior Zack Zubia and a double play that plated junior Cam Williams
The Longhorns sent ten batters to the plate in the second inning, chasing previously undefeated Razorback starter Patrick Wicklander from the game in the process. Marshall Denton’s performance in relief was not much of an improvement, as he surrendered a massive two-run shot to Zubia before Arkansas’ fourth error during a rundown plated the Longhorns’ final run.
Arkansas appeared shell-shocked, but reliever Caleb Bolden was just fine. He pitched four scoreless innings and kept the deficit at eight runs.
The Razorbacks are ranked sixth for a reason, and Heston Kjerstad is one of those reasons. He hit a home run to the left of the batter’s eye in the sixth to make it 8-2, starting Arkansas’ multi-inning rally. The Hogs scored one in the fifth, two in the sixth, and two more in the seventh.
Freshman Pete Hansen pitched a scoreless eighth after recording the final two outs of the previous inning. Freshman Andre Duplantier came in to close the ninth.
Once again, Arkansas proved why they are thought to be a top contender for a national seed. The Razorbacks scored two via a Matt Goodheart double that hit the top of the right field fence. Had it gone over, it would have tied the game. Still, the hit gave the Razorbacks even more momentum, and cut the game’s deficit to one run.
But Duplantier, from the Houston area, struck out the final two hitters to seal Texas’ victory.
“Really, he’s just got ice in his veins,” Pierce said. “I’m telling ya. He thrives in these situations and he’s done it so much. For him to walk into this stage, nothing changed for him and that was really cool to see.”
Duplantier’ calmness to end the game was crucial especially after sophomore Ty Madden provided six steady innings to earn the win. Madden gave up six hits and three earned runs to a lineup that entered the game with five players hitting above .340.
“I thought Ty was outstanding, he was outstanding all night,” Pierce said. “Pete did a great job, and Dre finished it.”
Texas still has Sunday’s game versus Missouri at 3 p.m. to close out the Shriners Hospital for Children College Classic. A win would complete a 2-1 weekend with Pierce able to review how his young team handled difficult competition with victory as the backdrop.
In seeing how Texas battles its opponents, Pierce has loved how the team is managing the ups and downs of baseball. Ten out of 11 times, they’ve done things well enough to earn victories for UT, several in comeback fashion.
Whether it’s a freshman shortstop proving he’s ready for the big stage, a first baseman earning the trust for of defense, a freshman catcher paired with a sophomore starter, or a freshman closer called in to finish a top 10 team, Pierce has found a team he can love.
“This team is a group that’s playing for the right reasons playing for the University of Texas, but really playing for each other,” Pierce said. “You can see it. When you’re either in the lineup, coming out of the ‘pen, or the bullpen catcher, every single guy is all in right now. It’s awesome.”
Following Sunday’s game with Missouri and a trip back to Austin, Texas welcomes Arizona and Cal State Fullerton. The Wildcats are 7-3 while the Titans are hovering near the edge of the top 25.
More competition, more opportunities for Pierce to see why he’s fallen in love so early.
“I don’t think they get rattled,” Pierce said. “They’ve got a little edge when they play. It’s fun to watch them.”