The win raised Texas' overall mark to 36-8 while Missouri fell to 30-12 and, more importantly, 10-6 in conference action. With the regular season down to eight conference games, Friday's win was pivotal to Texas' defense of its Big 12 Conference title. The importance of Friday's series-opening win wasn't lost on UT coach Augie Garrido.
"I'm so excited that I just can't hide it," Garrido wisecracked.
His pitchers didn't lose control and that's why he liked it. (Somewhere, the Pointer Sisters are groaning.) But Orangebloods have come to expect nothing less from McCulloch and reliever J. Brent Cox. McCulloch struck out five and scattered six hits in seven complete innings of work. Cox notched his 11th save of the season, good for the second-best mark in the country.
"(McCulloch) was effective in getting his breaking ball over early in the count and late in the count," Garrido said. "He pitched inside the zone and outside the zone. He used his changeup in opportune moments against left-handed hitters. I think a lot of it, too, was his courage to battle back from 3-0 counts a couple of times. He came back and got the out."
The Tigers, who were the only Big 12 team to post a series win against Texas in 2004, led with their Friday night ace RHP Max Scherzer (1.09 ERA). Missouri jumped out on top in the opening frame with leadoff hitter Zane Taylor's solo shot that barely cleared the right field wall. Texas third base coach Tommy Harmon was tossed during his team's first plate appearance for arguing a call as the Horns stranded a pair.
After two scoreless innings, McCulloch issued a one-out walk to DH Tyler Williams in the top of the fourth before 1B Derek Chambers laced 3-2 pitch into right field. But McCulloch worked himself out of a 3-0 jam when he fanned C J.C. Field and Texas C Taylor Teagarden threw Williams out at third on the double-steal attempt. The Horns left two aboard in the home half of the frame following LF Carson Kainer's two-out single up the middle and a Teagarden walk. But 3B David Maroul's pop-up to second base ended the threat.
The Horns finally got on board in the bottom of the fifth, starting with 2B Robby Hudson's leadoff walk. RF Nick Peoples sacrificed Hudson to second before CF Drew Stubbs took a called third strike much to the displeasure of the 5,329 on hand at the Disch. (HP umpire Randy Wetzel called a liberal strike zone most of the evening.) But then Johnston, the Big 12 leader in hits (72), launched a towering RBI single into right to plate Hudson and knot the affair at 1-1.
1B Derek Chambers opened the away half of the seventh with a leadoff single but was thrown out trying to reach second on Fields' poorly placed bunt. SS Gary Arndt's double play quickly ball ended the inning, setting up Texas' uprising as Scherzer was quickly losing his stuff.
Hudson's leadoff single to left launched the Longhorn rally just before he was issued a free pass to second courtesy of a Scherzer balk. Hudson safely slid into third on a passed ball as CF Drew Stubbs then worked a full count into a base-on-balls to put runners on the corners with one out. That's when you want your team's RBI-leader at the plate and Johnston, with 34 RBI on the season, delivered again. His deep sacrifice to center plated Hudson for the second time on the evening as Texas grabbed its first lead, 2-1. But the Horns weren't done. Stubbs stole second just before DH Will Crouch reached on a walk following Scherzer's 114th pitch of the contest.
Mizzou had seen enough, sending their ace to the showers and reliever Taylor Parker to the hill to face 1B Chance Wheeless. The lefty lasted one-third of an inning. After a double-steal safely moved both baserunners 90 feet closer to home, Wheeless slapped a 2-1 pitch up the middle for a base-clearing 2-RBI single as Texas completed the scoring at 4-1.
"When you're going against great pitching, you've got to keep battling until you get it right," Garrido said. "It doesn't come easy. The toughest skill in sport is hitting a baseball."
Cox came on in relief in the top of eighth and retired the side in order. The Tigers sent RHP Travis Wendte to the mound to open the home half of the frame and, after a shaky start, he worked himself out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam. Cox issued a one-out walk in the top of the ninth but put the game on ice after DH Tyler Williams hit into a double play. Scherzer shouldered just his second loss of the season against six wins.
To no small extent, Texas has played to the level of its opponents throughout much of the season. The Horns were coming off consecutive losses (a road loss at Oklahoma State, then to Texas State at the Disch) in which coaches weren't so much bothered that the team loss as they were the lackadaisical manner in which they gave up the 'W'. That's why Friday's win seemed to surface a renewed focus as Texas heads down the stretch.
"I think the whole mentality of the team was right on tonight," Garrido concluded.
The Tigers and Horns will square-off 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon with RHP Randy Boone (4-3, 3.63 ERA) expected to take the mound for the home team. Missouri should counter with LHP Nathan Culp (6-1, 3.14 ERA).