Two aces took the mound Thursday night in a game billed as the biggest of the season for both teams; for the conference and maybe for the landscape of college baseball.
The match-up — Taylor Jungmann of Texas versus John Stilson of Texas A&M — was well-hyped. Both were projected to be selected in the first round of the summer MLB draft, both dominating presences on the mound. Whoever won the pitching battle, it was said, would win the game.
When it ended at 9:22 p.m., there was only one left standing.
“Jungmann is the best college pitcher I’ve seen since Jered Weaver,” said head coach Augie Garrido.
On the humid night in a crowded stadium, Jungmann was at his best: a season-high 12 strikeouts and just two earned runs in 121 pitches of work. As the game wore on, he got even better. In his fourth complete game of the year, he didn’t even allow a safe hit past the fifth inning.
“He just gets better,” Garrido said. “He’s a student of the game, treats himself like a world class athlete.”
But it looked for a time he might not even get the win. The Aggies pushed across runs in the third and the fifth innings, and it seemed like the Longhorns would never get on the scoreboard. Erich Weiss walked to begin the second inning but was thrown out at second after a poor sacrifice bunt attempt by Paul Montalbano.
Stilson then picked off Montalbano at first. Jonathan Walsh and Jordan Etier drew walks with two outs on the board. Then, with Cohl Walla at the plate with an opportunity to drive in the first run, Etier was picked off at first by Stilson to end the rally.
Stilson wasn’t done playing escape artist. He got Weiss to look at a backdoor slider for the final out of the third inning, leaving three runners stranded. With runners on third and second in the fourth inning, he caused an inning-ending groundout.
“There were things A&M did to stop the momentum,” Garrido said. “Their pitcher battled himself out of some real tough innings.”
Texas finally got its run in the seventh as a wild pitch from Stilson allowed Etier to come home from third. Stilson got the hook and had to watch his team’s defense falter as Aggie third baseman Matt Juengel allowed a grounder off the bat of Tant Shepherd to pass through his glove for two runs and a 3-2 lead. In the top of the ninth, Mark Payton brought Brandon Loy home with an infield hit to second base, giving the Longhorns some insurance heading into the bottom half of the frame.
They wouldn’t end up needing it, with Jungmann retiring the Aggies in order — including two strikeouts to get the second and third batters.
Statistically, it may not have been Jungmann’s best performance of the year. Given what was at stake, it may have been his most heroic.
The two rivals entered the final weekend of the conference season tied atop the Big 12 standings. And with the regular season conference champion usually getting one of the treasured top-eight NCAA seeds, the Longhorns admitted they were treating the series like a playoff game.
“Yes, yes, no question,” Garrido said. “The biggest win of the year, the best game of the year for us.”