For the second straight game, Texas got hits from seven of nine batters, totaling 12 for the game, and a seven-inning performance from its starting pitcher, Kyle McCulloch on this night. And the Longhorns played defense. Oh, did they play defense.
Third baseman David Maroul, SS Seth Johnston, CF Drew Stubbs and RF Nick Peoples all turned in great defensive efforts, with Peoples' eighth inning leaping grab at the top of the wall of a Micah Owings drive an all-time highlight reel snag (think Omar Quintanilla vs. Rice in 2002).
"I think it was about pitching on both sides and defense and timely hitting," Augie Garrido said post-game.
McCulloch (11-4) went seven shutout innings, surrendering six hits and three walks while striking out seven. Tulane starter Brian Bogusevic also went seven, but the Houston Astros first-round Draft pick gave up 11 hits and five runs, four earned, shouldering just his third loss of the season vs. 13 wins.
"It was unbelievable some of the plays they were making tonight," McCulloch said of his teammates in the field, "and anytime you can have your defense out there making plays like that it just gives you that much more confidence to just throw the ball over the plate and let the other team put the ball in play and just let your defense make plays behind you and get outs."
It certainly also helps having the offense put up a two-spot in the first, which the Horns did for the second game in a row.
Texas jumped on Bogusevic in the home half of the first after Peoples led off with a grounder to short that SS Tommy Manzella fielded but flung wide of the first baseman, the first of two throwing errors on the evening. After a Stubbs sac bunt moved Peoples to second, Johnston dropped a fly into short left center in between the converging shortstop, left fielder and center fielder, who fired the ball to home where Peoples slid in just under the tag. It would be the only run the Horns would need.
But Texas added more. Will Crouch and Carson Kainer followed Johnston's RBI hit with back-to-back singles to load the bases for Taylor Teagarden. The Texas catcher smashed a ball to left in front of LF Mark Hamilton to score Johnston, the Horns' second run of the inning. (Texas may have run itself out of a bigger frame when third base coach Tommy Harmon waived home Crouch on the sharply struck single. The throw to home easily beat Crouch, and the tag was the second out of the inning. Wheeless grounded out to end the early uprising with the Horns on top 2-zip.)
McCulloch ran into two-out trouble in the first, second and fourth, allowing two base runners in each inning before retiring the side with no damage done.
The Horns gave the sophomore rightie more cushion in the bottom of the fifth when Kainer knocked a one-out grounder past Green Wave third baseman Brad Emaus, followed by a Teagarden single and a Maroul two-RBI double down the left field line to make it 4-0, Horns.
The Green Wave looked to answer in the top of the sixth, getting the lead runner on for the first time in the game, but McCulloch worked out of a first and second, one-out jam with the benefit of a called third strike on Bogusevic (who did not like the outside corner call, which the ump pretty consistently gave to both pitchers) and then a groundout from pinch hitter Scott Madden.
"I think the best thing (McCulloch) did was he got ahead in the count a high percentage of the time and when he did he took advantage of that by pitching outside the strike zone," Garrido said. "I think it was one of his best performances of the year because of that."
"I think Kyle was very consistent in getting ahead on the hitters and then pitching outside the zone," the head coach added, "and when he got the count to 2-2 and 3-2 he threw a strike."
Texas added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth when Peoples legged out an infield single to lead off the inning and Crouch delivered a two-out, off-the-top-of-the-wall single (one of his three hits on the evening) to push the Longhorn advantage to 5-0.
J. Brent Cox took over for McCulloch to start the eighth and sat the Green Wave down in order in the frame (with a big assist to Peoples) and, after a leadoff single by Bogusevic in the ninth, the closer retired the next three Tulane batters to send the Horns into the bracket championship.
Texas (53-16) will take on the winner of Tuesday evening's elimination game between Tulane (56-11) and Baylor (45-23), a 4-3, 10-inning, elimination game winner Monday over Oregon State, on Wednesday at 6 p.m. A win by the Horns in that one will send Texas to the national championship series for the second straight season. A Wednesday loss will force a bracket championship-deciding game between the Horns and the Green Wave or Bears on Thursday at 6 p.m.
"The position you're in now is kind of a sneaky one in that you can start to listen to the people that think you have it made and if you do you'll lose your competitive edge," Garrido said. "It's important our players keep their competitive edge and stay focused on the fundamentals of the game and not be distracted by other people's perceptions of where they are or what advantage (they have) because right away you'll take on the attitude that, 'Well, we've got it made and we must win' and now you're into expectations and that's the biggest single demon in the game. Don't expect anything and you'll get disappointed less when you play baseball."