Texas long on tradition short on experience
OMAHA, Neb. – The locals who have grown accustomed to watching Texas at the College World Series year in and year out don’t know whether to greet the Longhorns with “Howdy, stranger,” or “Welcome back.”
With a cast lacking the star power of past Texas squads, the Longhorns are in Omaha for a record 33rd time but the first time in four years.
No current Longhorn has played on Division I baseball’s biggest stage but, as the top seed, Texas is favored on paper to win its seventh national title. The ‘Horns will go against a field that features 2008 CWS qualifiers North Carolina and LSU and first-timers Virginia and Southern Mississippi.
Bracket 1 play opens today with Arkansas (39-22) meeting No. 2-seeded Cal State Fullerton (47-14) in the afternoon and Virginia (48-13-1) facing No. 3 LSU (51-16) at night. Sunday’s Bracket 2 first-round games pit No. 5 Arizona State (49-12) and No. 4 North Carolina (47-16) in the afternoon and Southern Miss (40-24) against Texas (46-14-1) at night.
Winners emerging from double-elimination bracket play meet in the best-of-three finals starting June 22.
Texas will try to become the first No. 1 seed to win the CWS since Miami in 1999. No team seeded among the top eight nationally has won the title since Rice in 2003.
Like the past two champions, Fresno State and Oregon State, the Longhorns’ roster is short on high draft picks and All-Americans. Texas, in fact, hasn’t been to the CWS since winning it all in 2005.
Augie Garrido, college baseball’s all-time winningest coach, said he’s more concerned with developing successful college players than pro prospects.
“At what point does physical talent supercede the heart and soul of a player?” Garrido said. “You’ve got to have 25 people working together, and that’s what baseball is really about. Our guys work hard on the fundamentals, they’re pretty unselfish and they’ll do anything it takes to win.”
The Longhorns aren’t like those college baseball powers of yesteryear that put up huge numbers.
They come in ranked 196th out of 288 teams in home runs (39), 208th in batting (.287) and 216th in scoring (6.0). Maybe their most impressive offensive stat is their nation-leading 96 sacrifice bunts, including an NCAA-record seven in their opener against TCU.
But these boys can pitch and field. The Longhorns are first nationally in fewest hits allowed (7.3 per game), second in ERA (2.84), fourth in fielding (.979) and ninth in walks allowed (2.63).
Taylor Jungmann (8-3, 2.27 ERA) and Chance Ruffin (10-2, 3.02) lead a pitching staff that has posted six shutouts and held right-handed batters to a .201 average.
To get here, the Longhorns had to scrap. In regionals, they beat Boston College 3-2 in 25 innings, the longest game in NCAA history, and then rallied for eight runs in the bottom of the ninth, including Preston Clark’s game-ending grand slam, to beat Army’s Cadets 14-10.
Wood pitched 13 innings against BC, holding the Eagles scoreless over 12.1.
3 innings. Garrido called it the senior left-hander’s performance the greatest he’s seen in 41 years of coaching.
In super regionals, Ruffin pitched a complete game in a 10-4 win over TCU in the opener, and then the usually light-hitting Longhorns got a home run, triple and two doubles in a 5-2 clinching win.
Among the other teams:
• Cal State-Fullerton returns six players who were on the Titans’ 2007 CWS team. The Titans have three players with 10 or more home runs for the first time in a decade. Daniel Renken (11-2, 2.36) and freshmen Noe Ramirez (9-1, 2.86) and Tyler Pill (11-3, 3.95) lead a deep pitching staff.
The Titans coasted through regionals before sweeping Louisville by a combined score of 23-2 in the Super Regionals.
“A lot has been said about how we had an easy road to Omaha, but there’s no coach up here who believes there’s an easy road to Omaha,” coach Dave Serrano said. “I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
• The Razorbacks came into the NCAAs off losses in 10 of 13 games, but they went 4-0 in regionals, including two wins over host Oklahoma, and are averaging almost 11 runs in their five national tournament victories.
• Virginia’s appearance is a homecoming for coach Brian O’Connor, who grew up in the Omaha area and pitched for hometown Creighton in the 1991 CWS. The Cavaliers have a 1.45 ERA in six national tournament games, and their bullpen allowed just one earned run in 16 innings in the three-game super regional at Mississippi.
O’Connor will be coaching against his mentor in LSU’s Paul Mainieri, whose team comes into the CWS on a season-long 10-game win streak. Ryan Schimpf has 19 homers and joins Jared Mitchell, a first-round pick by the Chicago White Sox, among eight LSU players batting .305 or higher.
• Arizona State is at the CWS for the 21st time and third time in five years. The Sun Devils pack plenty of offensive punch with a .305 team batting average, but their identity is pitching. Mike Leake (16-1, 1.36), the No. 8 pick in the draft (Cincinnati), headlines a staff that has a nation-leading 2.78 ERA. Leake and Josh Spence have combined to strike out 259.
• North Carolina, the first team to make four consecutive trips to Omaha since Stanford appeared in five from 1999 to 2003, features the No. 2 overall draft pick in first baseman Dustin Ackley (Seattle). Ackley is the marquee player for the Tar Heels, with his 22 homers and .412 average. Four other starters are batting better than .300.
North Carolina can pitch a little, too, averaging more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. And the Tar Heels have CWS-tested pitchers in Adam Warren (9-2) and Alex White (8-4).
• Southern Miss is the surprise qualifier, but the Golden Eagles can take heart in knowing that 2008 champion Fresno State also came to the CWS as a No. 3 regional seed. The Eagles will be trying to extend the career of coach Corky Palmer, who announced his retirement in April.