Baylor (46-23) took the first four games of the series this year, including a one-run win in the semifinals of the Big 12 Conference Tournament. But no 'W' is more critical to either team than the one that is up for grabs Wednesday. A Longhorn win would put coach Augie Garrido's bunch in this weekend's Championship Round (against unbeaten Florida or one-loss Arizona State) while a loss would force a deciding game between Texas and Baylor on Thursday.
After dropping a 5-1 decision Saturday to Texas, the Bears have hung tough by clawing their way (in dramatic fashion) through the loser's bracket. Baylor spotted top-seeded Tulane a 7-0 lead Tuesday before pulling the improbable comeback against the Tournament's top seed, 8-7.
"There are 27 outs in a game," Baylor coach Steve Smith said, "and you can't hold the ball and you can't take a knee, which is good for our team. We were down six runs (after two innings) but we still had outs, and we took advantage of the outs."
On Monday, Mike Pankratz's bloop single in the tenth inning gave Baylor a 4-3 win over Oregon State to send the PAC-10 champ packing. It was Baylor's first CWS win in school history. Texas, by contrast, notched an NCAA record 75th CWS win (moving past USC on the all-time list) with its 5-0 blanking of Tulane. It was the Horns' first CWS shutout since it drubbed James Madison, 12-0, in 1983. A good omen: Texas went on the claim the program's fourth CWS championship that season.
A synopsis of Texas at the midway point of the CWS is that the (statistically) best Longhorn defensive team of the past 40 years continues to string together just enough clutch hits (most of them singles) to hold on to early leads behind the deepest bullpen remaining at Omaha. Since the Big 12 Tournament last month, Texas has raised its team batting average from .289 to its current .305. SS Seth Johnston remains Texas' most potent slugger while Garrido has his team bunt players around as if their post-season lives depended on it. But fans of impeccable defense and small ball would be devoted groupies of this year's Longhorn team.
"The difference on the offensive side was we had some hits with runners in scoring position," Garrido said following the Tulane game. "and we had an extra-base hit with runners in scoring position."
Texas' pitching staff is so rested that Garrido could have put recliners in the bullpen. Freshman RHP Kenn Kasparek (8-0, 2.03 ERA), today's expected starter, and RHP Randy Boone (7-4, 3.48 ERA) have yet to see game day action in Omaha. Neither has reliever Clayton Stewart (9-0, 3.04 ERA). Freshman Adrian Alaniz (7-3, 2.57 ERA) will be available should Texas advance to this weekend's championship round.
We haven't seen the last of ace RHP Kyle McCulloch in the Series, who was nearly flawless in seven innings of work Monday (scattering six hits while fanning seven) to raise his mark to 11-4 on the season. It was also his first win, as a starter, during the 2005 post-season. Closer J. Brent Cox was dominating in two innings of work, striking out three and issuing no walks, to seal the deal against Tulane. The All-American also saw two innings of relief work Monday and owns the nation's best mark of 17 saves on the season.
One more tip of the hat is due to RF Nick Peoples. During the postseason, the sophomore has routinely turned in the kind of superlative defensive play that I have not seen since the days of SS Spike Owen (1980-82). His run-robbing, diving grabs in the Austin Regional and Super Regional had the effect of igniting the Longhorn offense in subsequent frames while his wall-climbing catch to deny Micah Owings an extra-base hit in the eighth inning Monday was enough to make you wonder if he was wearing a Spiderman costume beneath his uniform.
"It was unbelievable some of the plays they were making tonight," McCulloch said, "and anytime you can have you 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."
Some observers have suggested that Texas appears more relaxed, which consequently raises its level of play, because the team did not enter as the CWS favorite. But McCulloch suggested it may have more to do with the fact that Rosenblatt Stadium is like a second home to the Longhorns. Texas extended its own NCAA record with this season's 32nd CWS appearance.
"We might be more relaxed than the other teams because we've been here before," he said. "We're trying to play our own game."
The Horns and Bears are only Big 12 teams remaining in Omaha after local favorite Nebraska was eliminated by Arizona State, 8-7, in the bottom of the eleventh inning Tuesday. But if Texas is the only Big 12 club still standing by late Wednesday, the program will be primed for its sixth national championship.