A win is a win, but the Longhorns sure hope that the 5-3 squeaker they pulled out against Princeton ends up being their closest call of this regional tournament.
When Corey Knebel clinched the final out against the Tigers, the sellout crowd of 6,110 at UFCU Disch-Falk was finally able to breathe easy.
Thing is, against the fourth-seeded Tigers, nobody expected any trouble breathing at all.
Sam Stafford (6-2) pitched well for the top-seeded Longhorns, lasting seven innings — tied for his longest start of the year — and allowing just one earned run on two hits. Stafford also struck out six. He was replaced to start the eighth because head coach Augie Garrido recognized a favorable matchup, sending righty Nathan Thornhill to the mound to face two right-handed batters.
Then things got hairy.
“That decision was a slam dunk,” Garrido said. “For them.”
Thornhill allowed two quick hits, was pulled for southpaw Hoby Milner, who promptly allowed two to score (both runs were charged to Thornhill). The reliable Knebel was called to the mound; charged with the task of not only quelling the rally, but also securing the final five outs of the game.
Knebel got Sam Mulroy to ground into a double play to end the inning.
After a hitless bottom half of the eighth for the Longhorns, the Tigers tried to cobble together one final rally. Pinch-hitter Ryan Albert started off the inning with a single to left, putting Princeton in prime position with the potential tying run, Steve Harrington, coming to the plate. On the first pitch he saw, Harrington popped a blooper up to shallow left-center, where it looked like it might drop in for a hit until Texas second baseman Jordan Etier dove to his left to make the airborne catch.
“Etier’s catch was the play of the game,” Garrido said.
A two-run homer from Tant Shepherd gave the Longhorns a 4-1 lead after five.
“He made us pay for a little bit of mislocation,” Bradley said. “That was big, we had gotten back some wind in our sails and all of the sudden, we find ourselves down by three. That was a key spot in the game.”
Princeton pitcher Zak Hermans admitted that he just missed on the pitch.
“It was supposed to be a fast ball low and away and I just missed,” Hermans said. “He’s definitely one of the two or three guys on their team that’s got some serious power and it was a mistake and he made me pay for it.”
Shepherd was hitting leadoff for the first time all season, a decision he had discussed with Garrido throughout the week.
“I think for the first at-bat of the game, I changed my mentality,” said the first baseman. “As the first batter, you just want to see as many pitches as you can and help your teammates out.”
Erich Weiss grounded out to first base to score the first run of the game in the bottom of the first inning, and Brandon Loy scored from third on a wild pitch during next at-bat to give the Longhorns a 2-0 lead after the first. Stafford gave up his only run of the game in the fifth, an RBI single off the bat of Princeton shortstop Matt Bowman.
“Sam Stafford was brilliant,” Garrido said. “He dominated the game.”
The Longhorns (44-15) will try to do it again Saturday, this time with a larger margin of victory, against No. 3 seed Kent State, which beat Texas State 4-2 in 11 innings Friday. Taylor Jungmann (13-0) will take the mound against the Golden Flashes (44-15), with first pitch scheduled for 6: 30 p.m.