OMAHA, Nebraska - Nothing rattles these Longhorns. They're not bothered by three-straight elimination games at college baseball's mecca. They're not bothered by close games against great teams. They're not bothered by any of their bad at-bats or when they don't touch a bag late in a scoreless game on a would-be triple. What are they? They're a loose, extremely confident team, and now a team one game away from the National Championship series of the College World Series.
Behind senior Nathan Thornhill's outstanding performance, which became the norm a long time ago, the Longhorns (46-20) took advantage of Vanderbilt (48-20) miscues early and cruised to a 4-0 victory.
"Obviously the game was dominated by Nathan (Thornhill) on the defensive side of it with good support from his teammates," said Augie Garrido after the win. "We showed good patience early in the game and didn't… we took our walks that we needed to take. We'd have liked to have had more out of that rally, but glad to have the two. And then to get the two in the second inning really helped a lot, as well. From there on, it was pitching and defense, and we executed."
The moment of being in the College World Series and the environment of TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha can rattle even the best teams and best players. Vanderbilt starting pitcher Tyler Ferguson was definitely rattled. Brooks Marlow was hit by the first pitch of the game, Ben Johnson walked on four pitches, and Mark Payton was hit by a pitch to load the bases with one out. It looked, at least for a moment, like Ferguson and Vanderbilt could get out of the jam with no damage after Tres Barrera struck out. However, the unexpected, which Garrido consistently states normally decides these kinds of games, led to a run and eventually another one for Texas.
C.J Hinojosa hit a line drive that hit the umpire near second base, and by rule, because of where the umpire was hit in relation to the fielders around him, the ball is dead and everyone is safe. Texas took a 1-0 lead on the play, had the bases loaded, and with two outs Madison Carter was walked by Ferguson to force in a run before Vanderbilt went to the bullpen to end the inning.
The Longhorns immediately increased their lead to four in the second inning, and again took advantage of some things that Vanderbilt did. Zane Gurwitz led off the inning by ripping a hard liner to left, and the infielder slipped coming out of his break, which led to a leadoff triple. He scored when Marlow ripped a hard, sinking line drive to right that turned into another triple when the right fielder's diving attempt came up short. Payton pushed home a run with a push bunt, and the 4-0 advantage was more than enough for Thornhill.
Vanderbilt never really threatened the rest of the way. It put on the leadoff runner in the eighth inning, but Thornhill calmly pitched his way out of the jam.
"Well, this is who he is. I mean, this is why he came back, and this is who he is," Garrido said about Thornhill's excellent outing. "He doesn't lead by telling other people what to do. He leads by doing it himself. He leads by example. He has a very fine skill set. He was a quarterback in high school, he's used to leadership, and he's committed. He's committed to the University, he's committed to the baseball program, he's committed to Austin, Texas; he's all in, man, and he's a first-class citizen in every sense of the word. That's how he leads. And that's what has helped (Chad) Hollingsworth and every other pitcher that walks out there. No question about his influence and Mark has done the same thing."
The Longhorns will face Vanderbilt again tomorrow, and the game will either be at 2:00 p.m. (ESPN2) or 7:00 p.m. (ESPN) depending on whether or not undefeated Virginia beats Ole Miss Friday night.
Key moment in the game
Sometimes the Baseball Gods, if you believe in that sort of thing, give you a sign early that it's going to be your day. But regardless if you believe in that sort of thing or not, what you have to believe is that C.J Hinojosa, with the bases loaded, absolutely smoked a line drive towards right-center field that was so hard that it hit the umpire before he could even move. By rule, everyone was safe, the Longhorns scored a run, and Vanderbilt was officially rattled.
"Those are the kind of things that control the momentum, the intangibles," Garrido stated about the line drive off the umpire that resulted in a run for Texas. "When you're really playing as a team and you really are unselfish, somehow this game knows that and you get the luck factor on your side a lot. I don't know why it works that way, but it does. And if you're sloppy and you're lazy and you're not respecting the game, everything bad happens to you. I'm not saying that's what Vanderbilt did. They weren't. I'm saying… I don't know how the game knows when to reward a team with the intangibles, and that was one of them."
Would Vanderbilt have turned that into a double play? It's certainly possible because although the ball was crushed, the second baseman was shaded up the middle. But it didn't, and Texas took advantage. With the way Thornhill was throwing early on the mound, there was a feeling even after the second inning that this was absolutely going to be Texas' day, and it was.
Battle on the hill
Winning pitcher - Nathan Thornhill, Texas (9-3)
Losing pitcher - Tyler Ferguson, Vanderbilt (8-4)
From the very first pitch, Thornhill showed outstanding command as he moved the fastball on both sides of the plate and jumped ahead of an overly patient Vanderbilt lineup that forced him to use a lot of pitches early.
"I wasn't too surprised," responded Thornhill about Vanderbilt's patient approach. "They're good hitters. They're probably looking for their pitch because they are good hitters. I mean, if they're going to take them I'm going to try to get ahead and throw my pitches, and that's what happened today."
Garrido added that both he and Skip Johnson passed along to Thornhill early they felt Vanderbilt was extra patient in an effort to get deep into counts and drive up his pitch-count.
"I thought it was a dominating performance, and I do think they were trying to run his pitch count up because of the heat and trying to get him out of the game," stated Texas' head coach about his starting pitcher. "I think that was an accurate observation. Both Skip (Johnson) and I thought the same thing and passed on the information to Nate, and he has the kind of command where he can capitalize on something like that."
Thornhill repeated his delivery extremely well, mixed in the cutter a lot as an occasional swing-and-miss pitch to right-handers, showed the usual plus change, and spun a better-than-normal curveball that helped him get outs late in the count. However, it was again his mentality, confidence, and calmness on the mound that was most impressive because there was never really a moment when Thornhill wasn't in complete control of what he was doing and what was going on in the game when he was on the mound. And when he felt something slightly get away from him, he immediately corrected it.
"Yeah, I think so," responded Johnson when asked if Thornhill had some of his best command today. He went on about the adjustment Thornhill had to make early, "When you're a little tired, you start focusing a little more on your legs and staying closed. I think in that fifth inning he got a little erratic. I went out there and asked him I said, 'You can go a little bit softer if you want to go softer. And he goes, 'No, I just wasn't staying on a line. I have to stay closed, stay on a line, and stay through the baseball.' When he did that, he was really good that next inning. I asked him how he feels, and he gave me a thumbs up. So when I go out there to visit in I think the eighth inning I said, 'Hey, you're getting a little tired, use your legs, you've worked hard for this deal, do what you did the fifth inning to make that adjustment going into the sixth inning.' And that's what he did."
In 8.0 innings, the senior gave up just six hits, walked just one, and struck out five. He threw 131 pitches and was still sitting at 87-88 MPH in the eighth inning with some arm-side run on his fastball. Thornhill returned to Texas to bring the Longhorn program back to Omaha, and he's been one of college baseball's best pitchers here on its grandest stage.
An encouraging sign for Texas had to be the performance of Curtiss in the ninth. After being unable to pitch because of illness (believed to be food poisoning, which Johnson said caused him to lose 7-10 pounds), the right-hander looked as good as he has at any point this season. Curtiss ran the fastball up to 95 MPH with good command, and his power slurve was so good that it buckled the knees of a right-handed hitter. In a perfect ninth inning, Curtiss struck out one.
Breaking down the batter's box
Star of the game - At the top of the order, Marlow as an on-base machine for Texas. He went 1-for-1 with two runs scored, a RBI, two walks, and was hit by a 95 MPH fastball to start the game. From the left side of the plate, the junior did a great job of refusing to expand the zone, of letting the baseball travel, and of remaining patient. Marlow's one hit came when he ripped a hard sinking liner to right with a runner on third, and it turned into a triple when the outfielder missed on the diving attempt.
Frustrating day at the office - Vanderbilt catcher Jason Delay went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and stranded two runners on base.
Dustin's extra bases
The Longhorns continue to capitalize on the opponent's mistakes, and they continue to limit the mistakes of their own by executing their offense when they can, making all the routine plays defensively along with the occasional spectacular play, and not beating themselves. Were there some errors? Sure. Kacy Clemens was picked off at first after Gurwitz bunted through a pitch and Tres Barrera fired a pick-off throw in the eighth inning into right field. But the Longhorns are making the right plays at the most important times almost every single time.
Although he didn't record a hit, Payton handled the bat well and looked good at the plate. Late in the game, he was robbed of a potential two-RBI single when two outs when the first baseman dove to snare his hard line drive out of the air.
Gurwitz could have easily been the offensive star for Texas as well. In the bottom of the second inning, the freshman helped keep the heat and pressure on Vanderbilt by ripping a hard line drive to left, which turned into a triple when the left fielder slipped. He also lined another hard pitch into the outfield for a single.
Tres Barrera's struggles at the plate against right-handers continued. The freshman went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and expanded the zone and swung-and-missed at breaking stuff away. Johnson also showed similar, continued flaws against right-handing breaking balls as well. However, in his final at-bat of the game, Barrera hit a hard liner at the right fielder.