3 storylines to watch entering Texas’s College World Series opener

19 Jun By
Center fielder Mike Antico's speed could prove critical to the outcome of Sunday's game against Mississippi State, either on the base paths or in the outfield (photo courtesy of texassports.com).

OMAHA, Neb. — For the 37th time in program history, the Texas baseball team is one of just eight squads still standing in the NCAA Baseball Tournament.

The No. 2-seed Longhorns open their run in the College World Series at 6 p.m. Sunday against No. 7 Mississippi State at TD Ameritrade Park in a game that can be seen on ESPN2.

After finishing dead last in the Big 12 standings in 2019, Texas has had an impressive turnaround with a 47-15 record and arrives in Omaha as the highest remaining seed; the Bulldogs arrive at Sunday's game with a record of 45-16.

This year's run to the College World Series brings back memories of UT's 2018 trip to Omaha, though Texas head coach David Pierce said there is a major difference between the two teams in his press conference Wednesday.

“I think that team really overachieved in '18,” Pierce said. “I thought the pieces fell into place. We had a tremendous year by Kody (Clemens), we had a tremendous year by David (Hamilton). We pieced the pitching together, but it wasn’t what our pitching is now. When you go to Omaha because your starting pitching gives you an opportunity, it is a different feeling.

"Going in there this year, there’s never been any thought of, ‘hey, we made it to Omaha.’ The only thought we’ve had is, ‘it’s the next step; we’re going to Omaha to win this thing.’ There is definitely a different feeling with this team going in.”

Before the first pitch, here are three storylines to watch.

Rematch, but not revenge
The season has come full circle for Texas: the Horns will face the team against which they began the year: Mississippi State. On that cold February day inside Globe Life Field for the State Farm College Baseball Showdown, the Bulldogs won a one-sided affair, 8-3. Texas lost its next two games in Arlington, and its high preseason rankings dropped. But 62 games later, the Longhorns have rebounded in a big way, winning 47 of their next 61 games, and receiving the No. 2 national seed in the tournament.

Saturday Wear Burnt Orange

While Pierce has noted several times that the trio of losses in Arlington forced his team to refocus, he said Thursday that the Longhorns are not looking for revenge against the Bulldogs in Omaha.

“We talked about this yesterday," Pierce said. "We’re not playing Mississippi State in a revenge game because we were 0-3 in Arlington and they were one of the teams we opened up with. That’s not what we’ve done all year. We understand that they’re a very good team, (but) our intent is to go out and focus on ourselves and our team.”

Pitching matchup pits Madden against Bednar
In what has all the makings of a pitchers' duel, Texas ace Ty Madden will toe the rubber against Mississippi State's Will Bednar.

Though his earned run average is 3.53, Bednar has risen to the occasion time and time again, posting a 7-1 record this season. Much of that success is due to his high-level ability to strike out opposing batters at a rapid rate: through 74 innings, he has 113 strikeouts.

Madden has been equally as good, if not better, on the mound this season, with a 2.41 ERA and a 7-4 record. The Big 12 Pitcher of the Year has a lower strikeout-per-inning ratio, but more strikeouts than Bednar with 119 through 100-2/3 innings. He has also shown exceptional stamina, going at least six innings in each of his last five starts.

Speed vs. speed
In his press conference Thursday, Pierce said that he feels that Mississippi State has " better team speed than most (Southeastern Conference) teams."

His statement is based on fact: the Bulldogs are fourth in the SEC in stolen bases with 68, including 17 by infielder Kamren James, who ranked fourth in the conference in the category.

But Texas has two speedsters to counter Mississippi State in outfielders Mike Antico and Eric Kennedy. Antico has been dangerous on the base paths all season, ranking second in the nation in stolen bases with 39. Kennedy is especially quick out of the batter's box with 26 infield hits this season, 15 of those coming on bunts. If Sunday's game materializes into a pitcher's duel, speed will be critically important, in the form of a late-game stolen base, stretching a single into a double, or scoring from second on a base hit.

Riley Zayas is a high school sophomore and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. He began his journalism career as a Sports Illustrated Kids reporter and has since become a regular contributor to Horns Illustrated, covering Texas Longhorn sports. His work also includes Fellowship of Christian Athletes publications, College Baseball Nation and Sports Spectrum, a national christian sports website. He currently serves as the Managing Editor of True To The Cru, covering UMHB athletics. Twitter: @ZayasRiley