The first seven innings of Sunday's College World Series game between Texas and Southern Miss were, quite simply, a beautiful display of college baseball.
And then the bullpens got involved.
The teams combined to walk nine batters over the last two innings. Seven total runs were scored in the eighth and ninth innings, crossing the plate on four walks, an E5, a wild pitch, and just one single.
There was even a catcher's interference charged to UT backstop Cameron Rupp—the first catcher's interference call in the College World Series since 1981.
In a game that began to feel like whoever batted last would win, the top-seeded [and therefore home-team] Longhorns used a walkoff base on balls to inch pass Southern Miss, 7-6, and advance to the winner's bracket of the CWS.
Despite the ugly finish, both teams began the game with outstanding performances from their starting pitchers.
Sophomore right-hander Cole Green spent most of the season as Texas' second starter, but he got the starting nod from Longhrons coach Augie Garrido on Sunday. Green responded well, giving up just three runs in seven-plus innings. He walked one and struck out eight.
Though Green didn't have his best sinker on Sunday, he was able to throw his slider and changeup effectively when needed.
"I'm happy about the win and to have started," Green said. "You have to give Southern Miss credit on capitalizing. My pitches felt good. My slider felt good and I threw the change when I needed it."
Golden Eagles ace Todd McInnis was sharp early in the game, but the Longhorns used a selective approach and forced him to throw 29 pitches in the first inning alone.
UT leadoff man Michael Torres led off the bottom of the first with a single, and Russell Moldenhauer worked an eight-pitch walk later in the frame. Then Kevin Keyes hammered an outside fastball off the right-center field wall, plating two runs and giving the ‘Horns a quick 2-0 lead.
McInnis eventually settled in, holding the Texas bats off the board for the next four innings.
Through the first four frames, Green was using his sinker to get ground balls and going to his slider when he needed a strikeout. The plan was working, as he had a pair of double play balls and four strikeouts at that point.
Green momentarily lost his command when he walked USM first baseman Joey Archer to lead off the fifth. He then hung a first-pitch changeup to DH Michael Ewing, who punished the ball and deposited it into the right-center field bleachers, tying the game at two.
Both starting pitchers began cruising once more—until Moldenhauer came to the plate again.
With two outs in the top of the sixth, the junior designated hitter hammered a solo home run to left field, putting Texas back on top by one run.
Moldenhauer came out of Boerne High School as a power-hitting prospect, but Sunday's round-tripper was just his first of the season. It was only the second since his freshman year.
Longhorns coach Augie Garrido has given Moldenhauer more than a handful of starts in the cleanup spot this season, and his confidence paid off in the biggest game of the season to date.
"I believe I hit the ball well all year, although my batting average doesn't show it," said Moldenhauer. "Coach believes in me. I was glad to hit the home run, and I am looking forward to the next game."
Texas extended its lead and chased McInnis from the game in the seventh when nine-hole hitter Connor Rowe dumped a curveball into left field for a run-scoring single, giving the ‘Horns a 4-2 advantage.
With a two-run lead and Austin Wood in the bullpen, the Longhorns had plenty of reason to feel the game was well in-hand.
Green came out for the top of the eighth and allowed a leadoff double to pinch-hitter Adam Doleac.
Then the ‘Horns called on Wood.
Wood came out missing his spots and throwing at a lower velocity than usual. The senior lefty generally works between 88-91 mph with pinpoint command, but he was all over the place with an 84-86 mph fastball on Sunday.
Consequently, Wood had more than his share of struggles.
The Golden Eagles offense didn't get a ball out of the infield against Wood in the eighth inning. But an infield single, a wild pitch, two walks, a catcher's interference, and an E5 was all it took to give USM three runs and a 5-4 lead, charging Wood with a rare blown save.
Luckily for the Longhorns, the USM bullpen was even less effective.
Facing Southern Miss closer Collin Cargill, Texas loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth and scored two runs on a pair of bases-loaded walks from freshmen Brandon Loy and Kevin Lusson.
Without the benefit of an RBI hit, Texas re-took the lead, going up 6-5 through eight.
Wood came back out for the ninth inning and allowed a first-pitch single to Tyler Koelling. The Golden Eagles bunted Koelling to second base, and the Longhorns brought on freshman right-hander Taylor Jungmann.
Jungmann is slated to start game three for the Longhorns, but Garrido and pitching coach Skip Johnson liked him against USM's right-handed hitters.
The hurler got a first-pitch groundout with a good breaking ball, but he allowed a two-out RBI single to the next hitter, second baseman James Ewing.
Texas got out of the frame having given up just one run, and the game was tied at six going into the bottom of the ninth.
Recognizing the Southern Miss bullpen's inability to throw consistent strikes, Augie Garrido had just one message for his hitters in the ninth.
"That he was going to take until he got two strikes," replied Garrido when asked what he told Brandon Loy during his ninth inning at-bat. "But I told him not to ignore the pitches. I told him to watch every pitch to get his timing and rhythm because he was only going to get one pitch to swing at."
The plan worked.
Of the six UT hitters that came to the plate in the ninth, five worked a three-ball count. The one that didn't—Travis Tucker—was hit by a 1-0 pitch.
Tucker advanced to second when Brandon Belt worked a four-pitch walk, prompting the Golden Eagles to go with their fourth reliever in two innings, this time bringing in sidearming righty Jonathan Johnston.
The reliever fell behind Tant Shepherd, but he came back to strike him out swinging.
With two outs and two men on, Johnston faced defensive replacement Kyle Lusson, who came into the game batting .174.
Johnston walked him, loading the bases for Brandon Loy, who picked up an RBI walk in his previous plate appearance.
Sure enough, the sidewinder walked Loy on four pitches, bringing home the game-winning run and allowing Texas to advance into the winner's bracket.
Garrido believes nerves played a factor for the Southern Mississippi bullpen in the late innings.
"Championships are decided by the unexpected and we were the beneficiaries of some nervousness tonight," he said. "Total offense means doing what the ball tells you to do. But you have to be disciplined enough to do that."
For Southern Miss coach Corky Palmer, who is retiring after the College World Series, it was a tough way to lose his first-ever CWS game.
"We just didn't throw strikes at the end," he said, "and we just didn't throw strikes all game. That's really why we lost the game. We had every opportunity to win, and we just didn't get it done."
The Longhorns (47-14-1) will move on to face the Arizona State Sun Devils (50-12) on Tuesday evening at 6:00 p.m. Central. The contest will feature a pair of aces in right-handers Chance Ruffin (10-2, 3.02 ERA) and Mike Leake (16-1, 1.36).
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