Seniors Shine

AUSTIN - - Perhaps it was Mark Payton's blast over the deep fence of UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Friday, a.k.a. the Polo Grounds of the South, that peaked the interest of the New York Yankees.

Maybe it was the fact that that very two-run shot in the first inning, which sent Texas on its way to a 4-2 victory in the first game of the Austin Super Regional in front of 7,385 fans, also extended his Big 12 record for consecutive games reaching base safely to 100.

Who are we kidding? New York's advanced scouts had Payton pegged as a potential draft-pick long before another vintage performance on Friday that saw him bat 3-for-5 (also singled to right field and bunt singled to 3B).

But his second home run of the season did come at about the same time the Yankees took him in the seventh round of the 2014 MLB Draft.

"I'm not worried about that right now," said Payton, who was drafted by Minnesota in the 31st round in 2010 and the 16th round by Cleveland in 2013. "Just be ready for tomorrow. My focus right now is to be a Longhorn and focus on tomorrow."

New York has to be excited about the prospects of Payton in their system for years to come, but Augie Garrido and Co. aren't quite ready to give him up yet. With one more win, he'll lead Texas (42-19) back to the College World Series for the first time since 2011.

"It took four months of begging on my part," Garrido said on trying to get Payton and starter Nathan Thornhill to return for their senior seasons.

The Longhorns will get that chance at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Should Houston (48-17) win then they'll play a winner-take-all game on Sunday at 1 p.m.

But that's neither here nor there, and UT fans won't soon forget that blast from Payton or the performance Thornhill gave to keep Houston's potent bats at bay for much of the afternoon.

Thornhill came in having tossed one of his best games of the season against Texas A&M in the first game of the Houston Regional. In that outing he allowed one run on six hits and struck out a career-high seven in seven innings.

That dropped his ERA in his last four starts to a miniscule 0.40, which he clearly wasn't content with after the way he pitched on Friday. He didn't get into too many jams but was able to work his way out of most in his seven innings of work in which he allowed seven hits while walking one and striking out three.

"I felt really good right off the bat," Thornhill said. "I think Mark had something to do with that putting us up by two."

That blast was only the second home run of the season for Payton and only the third given up all season by Houston starter Jake Lemoine.

Lemoine, a hard-throwing right-handed who entered with a 2.65 ERA in 102 innings pitched but only a 6-7 record, has given up nine earned runs in two tournament starts to LSU and Texas.

"I thought it was a well-fought game," Houston coach Todd Whitting said. "They jumped on us with that big home run. We fought hard. We were down to our last swing."

The Longhorns added a run in the fourth on an error from Houston second baseman Josh Vidales.

UT got things going in the frame with a Madison Carter walk and a C.J. Hinojosa single with one out.

Connor Shaw followed by hitting into a fielder's choice to Houston shortstop Frankie Ratcliff, who flipped to Vidales for one but Vidales' throw got past first baseman Casey Grayson, which allowed Carter to score from third to make it 3-0.

Casey Clemens, who struggled mightily from the plate in the Houston Regional, followed by narrowly missing a two-run home run to right field, which put runners on the corners.

Both Texas and Houston touched on how difficult it is to hit a homer out of this park prior to the game, and Garrido touched on that after the game to referencing just how hard Clemens' hit was saying "it nearly went through the wall."

Texas wasn't able to tack on any additional runs in that frame but it did in the fifth on a two-out, two-strike single from Tres Barerra that got Carter in from second.

Carter had walked and stole second with Barerra at the plate just before UT's freshman cleanup hitter drove him in with his 35th RBI of the season (second on team to Payton's 38).

Houston finally got to Thornhill in the fifth and used a little luck to get on the board.

After back-to-back singles by Justin Montemayor and Connor Hollis to lead off the inning, Vidales hit a soft groundball down the first base line that hit off the bag and popped over Clemens' head.

Garrido was asked what was going through his mind at that moment to which he replied, "Oh sh**."

That allowed Montemayor to score from second and moved runners to the corners with no outs.

After a visit from pitching coach Skip Johnson, Thornhill got Caleb Barker to bounce one right back to him. Had he looked toward third he would have had Hollis nailed but he didn't and sacrificed the run for a double play.

"I saw the guy going home and I thought about getting him but I traded two outs for one run," Thornhill said.

Texas carried that 4-2 lead with it the rest of the way thanks to the continued solid pitching from Thornhill and another strong outing by reliever John Curtiss, who allowed just one single in two innings.

Whitting, for one, was very impressed with Thornhill, saying he was as good a pitcher as the Cougars had faced all season.

"Three pitches for a strike anywhere you want it," he said. "That makes it tough on your hitters. I'm not going to be hard on my hitters because we got pitched on today. He was outstanding."

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