Garrido: NCAA UT's 'Last' Chance For Championship

For decades, championships have been considered the birthright of the storied Texas baseball program. But when the Austin Regional of the NCAA double-elimination tournament begins Friday, the post-season represents Texas' "last chance" at a championship in 2005, according to head coach Augie Garrido.

A (45-14) Texas team that was the preseason choice to win the big 12 title and, in fact, spent most of the spring at, or near, the top of every collegiate baseball poll, settled for a third-place finish in both the Big 12 regular season (16-10) and conference tournament. It's no small part of the reason why the Horns were not one of the Top 8 seeds nationally and, consequently, not guaranteed a host site for a Super Regional should it win (as expected) this weekend?

"This is our last opportunity to play championship baseball," Garrido said. "I think we have a championship team. I've said that all season.'

Does this mean the team is carrying a Bevo-sized chip on its shoulder?

"I don't try to motivate over anger or emotions," Garrido said. "The reality is that this is a game that we respect and a game that we love to play."

But when pressed about his team's lower-than-expected seeding, Garrido replied: "I think I would get a letter (of reprimand) if I said what I thought."

It's as if a NCAA Selection Committee determined not to grant the Big 12 three host sites tried to compensate by giving Texas a more favorable draw in the opening round. The only trouble Texas should have with Northeastern Conference champ Quinnipiac, 6 p.m., Friday is how to spell it. For the record, C Taylor Teagarden correctly spelled the name of the private Connecticut college for the media on Thursday. It was also announced that the junior would be behind the plate for the first time since injuring his rib cage at Texas A&M on May 20 (see Teagarden Will Play In Regional Opener Friday).

"At this point, I'm going to do whatever I can," Teagarden said. "I'm not going to push it. You probably won't see me hitting any home runs this weekend but I feel like I can definitely catch the ball back there and do that job, at least."

There's no truth to the rumor that Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pee-ack) is a derivative of a Native American word meaning "first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance" or "just happy to be here." Even so, it shapes up as a classic mismatch pitting college baseball's winningest program against a small Connecticut school (there will be more people in the stands Friday than there are undergrads at Quinnipiac) in just its eighth season of D-I baseball. The Bobcats are 26-22 on the season under 15th-year head coach Dan Gooley.

Those who would invoke the proverbial David vs. Goliath mismatch would do well to remember that the underdog prevailed in that classic contest. But a sure sign of head coach Augie Garrido's confidence is his decision to start freshman RHP Kenn Kasparek against the Bobcats (who knew that there were Bobcats in Connecticut?) and save his usual Friday night starter Kyle McCulloch (9-3, 2.70 ERA) for a Saturday showdown against either Arkansas or Miami (Ohio). But Garrido insists it has nothing to do with taking lightly the Friday night opponent.

"It isn't about the other team, it's about (Kasparek)," Garrido said. "We think this is the best opportunity for him to perform well."

At 6-foot-10-inches, Kasparek is Texas' version of the Big Unit. The freshman basically has two pitches -- a fastball and a breaking ball -- but has been virtually untouchable as of late. The Horns badly needed another weapon after projected ace Sam LeCure did not qualify academically for the 2005 season. We saw Kasparek begin to come into his own with a dominating performance at nationally-ranked Rice (April 20); he has since improved his overall mark to 6-0 while boasting a team-leading 2.03 ERA in 11 appearances.

"Ken has become one of our best pitchers the past three weeks," Garrido continued. "He's been our most consistent pitcher. That's why we're starting him."

The freshman is simply trying to keep his first collegiate post-season start in proper perspective.

"This is pretty exiting, but I'm just trying to put it aside and go out there and play," he said. "It's definitely exciting to be out there throwing in the post-season."

The Bobcats earned their first-ever NEC championship and NCAA berth with its 7-3 win over Monmouth University on May 23 in a decisive seventh game of its conference championship. The team led the NEC with a .299 average and 39 homers. The player to watch is junior 1B Bryan Sabatella, the 2005 NEC Player of the Year and a legitimate pro-prospect. Sabatella is looking to become just the second player in NEC history to capture the Triple Crown (he currently leads his league in all three Triple Crown categories with a .409 average, 11 homers and 39 RBI).

Texas will counter, at the plate, with 2B Seth Johnston's team-leading .402 batting average. Johnston admitted he had never heard of Friday's opponent until Regional projections were revealed early last month. But he knows that a Texas team that managed to lose a home game against lowly Kansas State and also lost two of three to Kansas cannot be looking beyond Friday's affair.

"Those guys are in the Tournament for a reason," Johnston said, "and that's because they can play baseball."

Also playing baseball in Austin this weekend is second-seeded Arkansas, but I would look for Miami (Ohio) to stave off the Hogs in the afternoon game based simply on their superior bullpen. The Hogs are a surprise second seed after going 13-17 in the rugged SEC while the Redhawks are the MAC champions. Orangebloods need to pull for Arkansas to force Miami into the elimination bracket and, consequently, lean heavily on its bullpen.

The Hogs are looking to improve upon their last Tournament appearance in Austin, where they went quietly in 2003 with a 1-2 showing. Texas walloped its former SWC foe, 13-2, when they met in the 2004 College World Series. The Longhorns and the Red Hawks have just one prior encounter, an 11-1 Texas win at the 2000 NCAA Regional in Tempe, Ariz.

The losers of Friday's games will play at 12 p.m. (CDT), Saturday before the two Friday winners meet later that evening at 6 p.m. A second elimination game is scheduled for high noon, Sunday, prior to the first championship game at 6 p.m. A second championship game is on tap for 1 p.m., Monday, if necessary.

If the seeds hold, Texas (45-14) would meet No. 5 national seed Ole Miss (44-17) in the Super Regional. The only way Texas hosts a Super Regional is if the Rebels stumble in their own ballpark against either Southern Miss (41-19), Maine (34-17) or Oklahoma (33-24).

But first there is the matter of disposing of visitors.

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