Surprise starter Simmons pitched into the eighth inning vs. Rice, leading UT to a 2-1 victory over the Owls to send Texas into a Monday 7 p.m. winner's bracket meeting with Stanford, which defeated Notre Dame 4-3 earlier on Saturday.
"He has been a big game pitcher all his life," Augie Garrido said postgame of Simmons. "He's won big games in high school, he won big games last year for us as a freshman, and he gave us great performance again tonight. It was about his character and his whole makeup to deliver."
And deliver the All-American sophomore did, earning win No. 15 -- his first in almost a month -- by surrendering just one run on five hits while pitching out of several jams and allowing the Texas bats to scratch out just enough offense for the opening round win.
Texas jumped on top in the third with three consecutive two-out singles. After Kalani Napoleon and Tim Moss went down on fly balls to center to open the inning, Omar Quintanilla lined a shot back up the middle past Rice starter Steven Herce. Dustin Majewski followed with a single to right, setting up Jeff Ontiveros for his RBI liner, again past Herce, to score Quintanilla from third.
Rice threatened in the fourth when Simmons walked leadoff man A.J. Porfirio and then gave up a slow single to Eric Arnold past a diving Quintanilla, setting up the Owls with runners on first and second with no outs. Former Horn Vincent Sinisi, though, lined sharply to Ontiveros at first, who stepped on the bag to double off Arnold. Hunter Brown flew out to deep right center to end the inning.
Rice also put two on with one out in the fifth and in the sixth, but Simmons pitched out of both jams. In the fifth, the Longhorn lefty forced Justin Ruchti to fly out to center and Chris Kolkhorst to line out to Moss to preserve the Horns' 1-0 advantage. In the sixth, after Majewski robbed leadoff hitter Porfirio of an extra base hit with a leaping catch at the left field wall, Rice hitters posted back-to-back singles before Simmons forced fly outs from Brown and Enrique Cruz.
Texas added an insurance run in the top of the eighth when Majewski doubled to the left corner to score Moss, and the Horns would need it. Rice cut UT's 2-0 advantage to 2-1 in the bottom half of the inning, and threatened to do far more. Arnold crushed a Simmons' one out offering to dead center for the shutout-busting solo homer and Sinisi followed by hitting a hard shot that ate up Moss for an E4, putting the Owls' All-American on first, still with just one out. Frank Anderson then called on Huston Street to shut down the nation's No. 1 team. Street walked Brown, putting two on with one out, but the Longhorn freshman struck out pinch hitter Mike Lorsbach for the second out of the inning, setting up what turned out to be the game's decisive play.
Paul Janish hit a grounder down the left field line that Quintanilla ranged right to get in front of but couldn't corral. The ball rolled up the Texas third baseman's left (glove) hand and then off his swinging right hand and into foul territory. Sinisi, running from second on the play, rounded third and headed home as the ball rolled towards the third base coach's box. As Sinisi sprinted down the line, Quintanilla hustled to his right, barehanding the ball and firing to catcher Ryan Hubele at home. The perfectly targeted throw beat Sinisi by several steps and Hubele, with his right foot blocking the plate, applied the tag to preserve the 2-1 Longhorn lead.
After Texas threatened but failed to score in the top of the ninth, Street struck out Davis and forced pinch hitter Dane Bubela and Kolkhorst into ground outs to pick up his 11th save of the season.
Despite two uncharacteristic errors from second baseman Moss, the Texas defense -- particularly on Majewski's and Quintanilla's plays described above -- saved the day for Simmons, Street and the Horns' opening game hopes.
"Those plays had a huge effect on the momentum," the Texas head coach said. "If either ball goes out of ballpark or puts runners in scoring position, the momentum would have shifted. In this game there was a delicate balance and the momentum shifts were subtle. In those cases, the momentum shifts wouldn't have been subtle. That would have made things different."
Texas, though, as championship teams do, made plays when it had to, putting it one crucial step closer to the '02 team's fifth and ultimate championship.