Baseball: Horns one loss from elimination

Houston starting pitcher <B>Brad Sullivan</B> said that, with the Disch-Falk stands filled with a &quot;ton of people,&quot; he wanted to &quot;set the tone early.&quot;

How's this for setting the tone: the Cougars' All-America candidate struck out the first four Texas batters he faced. Looking. Sullivan didn't throw a first pitch ball until the fourth inning and the Horns didn't push a player into scoring position until the fifth. UT couldn't scratch out even a single run against the nifty rightie or Houston shortstop/closer Jesse Crain.

So despite a strong performance from Jesen Merle (6-2/3, four hits, two runs, one earned) in relief of UT starter Brad Halsey, U of H did manage to sneak across an unearned run in the fifth before adding an insurance run in the ninth for a 2-0 win that puts the Horns on the brink of playoff elimination.

"I feel like our players certainly battled hard and it was a tough loss but our players are tough players," Augie Garrido said postgame. "They came through the loser's bracket of the Big 12 Tournament. People wrote us off after we lost four and won just two of our first six conference games. This team has been able to overcome adversity before."

Texas faced adversity early and then created some of its own late during Friday night's best-of-three series opener. Halsey worked out of a bases loaded jam in the top of the first inning but had to leave the game after the second because of back spasms. Merle, who shouldered the loss, took over and pitched into the ninth, but the Cougars pushed across all the runs -- one -- they would need in the fifth after a Michael Hollimon throwing error. On a grounder to the left side of the infield (which 3B Omar Quintanilla also broke for), the freshman shortstop tried to throw to a running-to-third Quintanilla to tag out lead runner Keith Whatley. Hollimon, though, soft tossed the throw, which hit Whatley in the back and bounced into foul territory outside of third, allowing Whatley to score the game's decisive run.

Garrido called it an "instinctive play" on Hollimon's part where "the runner just happened to be in the way." Houston coach Rayner Noble, though, said a veteran shortstop probably would have taken the sure second out of the inning with a throw to first. Regardless, UT suddenly found itself trailing one of college baseball's best pitchers after four innings of almost no success.

The Horns, though, would have their chances against Sullivan.

Texas stranded base runners in every inning after the second. The Horns managed consecutive base hits for the only time during the game in the fifth, loading the bases with two-out singles by Kalani Napoleon and Tim Moss following a one-out walk to Hollimon. Quintanilla, though, flew harmlessly out to center to end UT's best scoring threat of the game. In the inning, Cougar SS Crain saved a run with a diving effort to his left that kept Moss's hit up the middle from reaching the outfield, which probably would have enabled Hollimon to score from second.

The other big defensive play by Houston came in the seventh. The Horns put together another two-out rally with another Napoleon single and a Moss walk. Quintanilla, with another opportunity to drive in the (at the time) tying run from second, lined the ball sharply to the deep left field corner, but Whatley made an arms-extended, running catch to again deny Texas a run.

A Jeff Ontiveros one-out double in the eighth off of Sullivan again put the tying run in scoring position for the Horns, but Crain, after 7-1/3 innings at short, moved to the mound in relief of Sullivan and forced Brandon Fahey into an easy groundout and retired J.D. Reininger on a strikeout to end the inning. Pinch hitter Matt Rosenberg led off the ninth with a single but Crain polished off the next three Longhorn batters in order to earn his 10th save of the season.

Texas finished with eight hits to Houston's six but the Horns stranded 10 baserunners, including four in scoring position, and had two runners gunned down trying to steal second. The Cougars stranded eight.

"It was a fine pitcher's duel as anticipated," the Texas head coach said. "The pitchers that went to the mound did a great job on both sides. The margin was they made a couple of defensive plays, particularly the play up the middle by the shortstop and the ball by Omar."

The Horns (51-15) must now win two straight from the surging Cougars (48-15), winners of 15 of their last 16 games. Justin Simmons (14-1, 2.42 ERA) is the probable starter for Texas in Saturday's 7 p.m. contest. Houston is expected to counter with Danny Zell (8-1, 2.09 ERA).

"The pressure is only what you allow it to be," Garrido said of his team's brink-of-elimination mentality. "I hope the players really stay within themselves . . . and just play, play to the best of their ability. We did that tonight, we just didn't win."

"It's gonna be a war to get that second win," Sullivan said. "They're going to come out and play balls to the wall."

After Friday's loss, the Horns have no choice if they want Omaha to remain on the summer itinerary.

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