OMAHA, Neb. — Welcome to Lone Star State Sunday at the Men’s College World Series. A neighborhood feud has broken out in Charles Schwab Field, so maybe we should gather around to see what happens. Don’t mess with Texas shirts optional.
The motives are as plain as the longhorns on a steer. If Texas must go through the rigors of winning an elimination game, it might as well be at the expense of their old chums from College Station. Who better to kick out of town than Texas A&M? Vice versa for the Aggies, who would truly relish watching the Longhorns trudge on the bus for the trip back to Austin.
“The rivalry is real,” Texas A&M pitcher Micah Dallas would say later. “There is a little extra umpf behind everything, especially when it’s Texas because you just look at the fan bases. There’s a lot of genuine hate between each other.”
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They have met 373 times before Sunday, but never in Omaha.
Here are the lineup cards. Twenty names, counting the starting pitchers, and 12 are native sons of Texas. This game is as Texas as BBQ.
Texas scores a run in the top of the first inning, of course. In the first five games, this tournament has settled into a consistent routine: Someone sings the national anthem, then the visiting team scores in the top of the first. All five games. First time in the history of the MCWS.
The Longhorns make it 2-0 in the second on an RBI double by Douglas Hodo III. Somewhere in the stands is Doug Hodo, who played for the Texas national champions in 1983. The story goes that Doug once told his kids they could choose any college they wanted and he’d help pay the way. Except Texas A&M. He returned to Omaha in 2005 to watch Texas win another title and brought along his four-year-old son for the experience. That little boy is now standing on second base after his double on Father’s Day.
Bottom of the second, the Aggies do what the Aggies do. They like to turn each at-bat into the Seven Years’ War, taking or fouling off pitch after pitch, driving the opposing pitcher up a wall and turning times of games into Gone With the Wind. That’s why coach Jim Schlossnagle goes up to an ESPN person in the dugout before the first pitch and says, “I sure hope you get paid by the hour because you’ll be here for a while.”
Poor Lucas Gordon. He throws 10 pitches in the second inning for Texas. . . then 20 . . . then 30. After 32 pitches, the game is tied and there are still only two out, and here comes Trevor Werner. Texas might be the land of prize steaks, but according to the school media guide, the A&M third baseman hasn’t eaten beef since he saw Sylvester Stallone pounding the side of a hanging cow in a meat locker in Rocky at the age of five.
What begins is a duel in the sun. Werner fouls off four pitches. Take a ball. Foul off two more. Take two more balls. Fouls off another. There goes the NCAA budget for baseballs. The temperature is in the 90s and Gordon must feel as if he’s on a treadmill in a sauna. Finally, Werner lines the 11th pitch of the at-bat into left-center for two runs and a 4-2 A&M lead. It is the first lead change of this entire College World Series. And it transforms this game.
Later, Werner would describe what High Noon is like at the plate.
“I was telling myself one pitch at a time. Win this pitch, win this pitch,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it. Great juice in the moment, I guess. You’re just focused on that one pitch, not the pitch before or the next pitch that’s coming. You’re just sold out on the pitch you’re fighting for.”
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It is very much a microcosm of Texas A&M offense in one forever at-bat.
“If we get a hit, great,” Jordan Thompson says. “If we don’t, put a lot of pitches on the pitcher. . . and just pass the bat along to the next guy behind you and have trust in them.”
The Aggies can sense how they can get in the pitchers’ heads.
“That’s what makes our offense so effective. We’ve worn down starting pitchers all year going deep in at-bats and fighting. Go in compete mode with two strikes,” Werner said. “You can start seeing the pitchers make more mistakes and miss spots. Sometimes you’ll get pitchers, they’ll show it with their body language. They’ll just kind of slouch or shake their hands or hang their heads. That’s when you know you’ve really got them.”
So, did that happen with the Longhorns?
“A little bit. We’ve seen worse, we’ve seen better,”
Gordon is lifted after the hit. He has gone through 43 pitches in the second inning and still not escaped the infernal Texas A&M rally. Arkansas’ Connor Noland needed fewer pitches than that the day before to get through five innings against Stanford. Gordon has been Aggied.
“Those type of at-bats wear on you,” Texas coach David Pierce says later. “You’ve got to put pressure on them by pounding the strike zone.
“Not to discredit their efforts and discredit their fight at home plate, but we had opportunity to put guys away and we didn’t.”
While all this is going on, there are a lot of potato chips being eaten in the Texas A&M dugout. Pringles are continually awarded and handed out from a giant can for good deeds in one of the sport’s more novel – and saltier – traditions.
Another quirky A&M tradition breaks out in the third. Longhorn pitcher Jared Southard walks Ryan Targac on four pitches. He knows what’s coming next. The dread Ball five! Ball five! Ball five! vocals from the Aggie fans. Any walk on four pitches flips that automatic switch.
Southard’s first pitch to the next batter Troy Claunch is out of the strike zone. Ball six! Ball six! Ball six! So is the next pitch. Ball seven! Ball seven! Ball seven!
There are only two ways to stop this; rain delay or throw a strike. And there’s not a cloud in the sky. But Southard’s next pitch is across the plate. The song subsides, for now anyway. The Texas Two-Step of Omaha goes on.
Later comes the final crossroads in the sixth Texas. Bases loaded, two out, the Aggies ahead 8-2 and Ivan Melendez at the plate, as the college game’s most feared hitter. He leads the nation in homers and RBI, and with one swing he can make it a game again.
He’s facing Jacob Palisch, who this time last year was in Omaha pitching for Stanford. Melendez is from El Paso, Palisch from just outside Dallas. Texan against Texan in the last critical moment of this all-Texas game.
Palisch wins, with a fastball that Melendez watches for a called third strike.
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The game eventually ends 10-2 after four hours, yet another blowout in a College World Series so far void of close games. The Longhorns are the first team eliminated, and it has not been a fun week for Melendez, who in two games had one single and no RBI. Texas has gone 2-for-14 Sunday with runners in scoring position, and 3-for-19 for the week. One reason the Longhorns are going home.
The Aggies move on, finally winning their first CWS game since 1993, having lost nine in a row. To end that frustration against Texas, beating the Longhorns for a fourth consecutive time? Priceless. Schlossnagle is a Texas guy, but this is his first season at A&M so he looks at it with a tad more dispassionate eye.
“I know it’s a big deal. I’d rather win a national title,” he says. “I don’t want to downplay it but I think those things are more for the fans than they are for the players and coaches. If we get into that kind of thought process, then we’re going to be having a different mindset in one game than we are in another game.
“But yeah, I get it. It’s fun. It’s fun to hear the fans going back and forth. It’s fun to have the alma mater or war hymn sung on one side and whatever they call it on that side. You don’t see that in a lot of places. To bring that to Omaha is pretty awesome.”
Especially since it’s his team that is staying. Pringles, anyone?