Horns win 8-5 to force one-game playoff

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  • Ivan Melendez homered in the ninth inning to key the win.
  • Texas still must beat Mississippi State Saturday to earn a trip to the finals.

Texas fought, waited around, fought some more then lived to play another day.

Well, actually the same day.

Texas 8, Mississippi State 5.

More:Texas 8, Mississippi State 5: Melendez HR moves Longhorns move within a win of CWS finale

After an embarrassing debut at the 2021 College World Series, the Longhorns finally got to Mississippi State’s pitching staff with the season hanging in the balance.

They’re for real, as we found out during the regular season. The struggles of their first night at TD Ameritrade Park are now in the past. The Horns are surging and are in play to make history.

Ivan Melendez, whose torrid six-game home-run streak seems like forever ago, squared up a meaty ninth-inning fastball for a three-run homer on college baseball’s biggest stage and skipped around the bases like an eight-year-old who had just homered off his dad in a  father-son game.

 Melendez’ father dad was actually in the stands celebrating with family members in the stands and Longhorn Nation joined with a victory certainly in hand.

Then the rains came.

Our national college baseball buzz was replaced by an endless stream of NHL playoff highlights on SportsCenter and Horn fans lamenting the loss of a 5-2 eight-inning lead. The superstitious among them penned the blame on a dude behind the Texas dugout wearing short jorts and drinking a cold brew from his shoe.

Two hours and 26 minutes later, freshman reliever Aaron Nixon regained some shaky  footing and closed it out by retiring Scotty Dubrule on a grounder to pull Texas to within one win of the championship series.

After staff ace Ty Madden — working on three days rest — gave the Horns just what they need with six innings of  four-hit ball, Pierce handed the ball to freshman reliever Tanner Witt, who threw 78  pitches in a great 5 2/3 innings against Tennessee Tuesday. Witt, working on two days rest, was game but visibly tired and issued three consecutive eighth-inning walks, the latter coming with the bases loaded to cut Texas’ lead to 5-3. Closer Aaron Nixon came on and gave up a two-run single to Brad Cumbest and just like that, the lead, was gone.

I liked the call to go with Witt because you dance with who brung ya, even if your dance partner’s legs — or in this case, their, arm — is tired.

Texas's Ty Madden (32) throws a pitch against Mississippi State in the second inning of an NCAA college baseball game in the College World Series Thursday, June 24, 2021, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. Madden gave up only four hits in six innings of the 8-5 win. The Horns forced a one-game playoff with Hail State with the winner advancing to the title series against Vanderbilt.

“To me it wasn’t a tough question,” Pierce told me. “He’s been that guy in that slot. Our biggest question is after his outing on Tuesday, how much he could go without pushing it. And we probably walked a thin line there. But we’re in June right now.”

June is winning time and to throw someone like Lucas Gordon, Kolby Kubicheck, Palmer Wentzel or Jeremy Southard into an Omaha pressure cooker with runners on base when none have been part of the regular rotation…that was a risk Pierce was unwilling to take.

That could all change Saturday night where he figures to start Tristan Stephens, who will be working on three days rest after throwing only 58 pitches in an uneven performance against Tennessee Tuesday. Cole Quintanilla should be ready to go in relief after throwing only 22 pitches against Virginia.

Had you told Pierce and pitching coach Sean Allen they would be faced with possibly pitching an unproven in a tight spot against a terrific lineup with a chance to play in the championship series, they would take that scenario all day long and twice on Sunday, or is Saturday? These days are all running together lately.

Texas’ latest survival display brought to an end one of the wildest days in CWS history. It  began with Vanderbilt forcing a second game against North Carolina State after the defending national champions won over a depleted Wolfpack that all but 13 players to COVID-19 safety protocols.

At least that’s what we thought would happen.

We found out in the final moments of action well past midnight that the Wolfpack had been unceremoniously deemed ineligible to continue on because…well, because of COVID-19.

That begs the question as to what would have happened had the Wolfpack eliminated Vanderbilt earlier Saturday. Would the Commodores have been allowed to reenter the bracket or would the Texas-Mississippi State winner have been declared the national champion?

The latter makes the most sense. Thankfully the NCAA wasn’t put in the position to make that call given the way things have gone lately, from the ill-conceived timer limit placed on pitchers and hitters to the questionable calls and horrendous strike zones we’ve witnessed over the last week, it would not have ended well.

As for the resurgent Horns, they are starting to resemble the bunch that arrived in Omaha as the favorite to win it all after North Carolina State eliminated the top national seed Arkansas Razorbacks. Texas whiffed 21 times in the opening loss to Hail State and their terrific starter-closer duo of Will Bednar and Landon Sims.

Yet, here they stand the winners of three straight, with the last two coming after nearly six hours in rain delays.

“I like our lineup right now,” Melendez said. “We’ve been having changes top to bottom moving people all over. But 1 through 9, we’ll compete and battle every pitch.”

Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis was non-committal on his pitching plans  but anyone with one percent of a brain knows it will be Bednar taking the mound this evening.

Texas knows it will have to go though those two if it is to return to the title round for the first time since 2009.

 “I think they held back their two best arms,” Pierce said. “I think we’ll see two guys tomorrow, period.”

No one ever said Omaha would be easy.



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