3 storylines to watch when baseball faces Virginia Thursday

Should UT's starter falter Thursday in a win-or-go-home matchup against Virginia, Texas head coach David Pierce will have a relatively fresh bullpen of relievers upon whom he can call to try to keep the Longhorns' season alive (photo courtesy of texas sports.com).

OMAHA, Neb. — The Texas baseball team extended its stay at the College World Series Tuesday afternoon, as the Longhorns handled Tennessee, 8-4, in an elimination game, by doing what one of its young stars says it does best.

“We’re our best when we have fun,” freshman pitcher Tanner Witt said postgame. “We’re a loose, young team and we like to have fun, so we’ll keep doing that.”

The Longhorns will try to keep that fun going Thursday at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, when they face Virginia in yet another elimination game at 6 p.m. in a game that will be carried on ESPN2.

The Cavaliers ended up in Thursday's game against UT after coughing up an early 4-0 lead against Mississippi State Tuesday, but lost the advantage as the Bulldogs scored six runs in the eighth to pull out a 6-5 win.

This creates a must-win battle between Texas (48-16) and Virginia (35-26), with the winner moving on to play Mississippi State Friday and the loser ending its season.

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

Pitching matchup unclear
The pitching matchup has not yet been announced, although each team has a leading candidate who is expected to toe the rubber to begin the game.

For Texas, that candidate is Pete Hansen. The redshirt freshman threw two scoreless innings against Mississippi State, allowing just one hit and walking none. Hansen has looked good in his last five starts, and has a 9-1 record and a 1.79 earned run average.

Virginia likely will send Mike Vasil to the hill. With 15 starts this season, he has experience, but not the same kind of swing-and-miss effect that fellow UVA starters Andrew Abbott and Griffin McGary have. He gives up hits at regular rate, with a 7-5 record and 4.82 ERA.

Virginia has been hard to beat when fighting elimination
The Cavs have been especially good this season when facing elimination. Virginia dropped its opening game of both the Columbia Regional and Columbia Super Regional, but managed to survive and advance. At the Regional, UVA won four straight contests to seal a spot in the Super Regional, winning back-to-back contests after losing a game against Dallas Baptist.

This is remarkable, considering the high level of baseball evident throughout the NCAA Tournament.

One stat to know entering Thursday's win-or-go-home contest: Virginia is hitting .289 in elimination games during the NCAA Tournament, which is 0.23 higher than the team's season average.

Texas is facing just its second elimination game during this NCAA Tournament.

Young relievers step to center stage for Texas
Throughout this season, it has been the work of young relievers that has allowed Texas to close out several victories. In Tuesday's win, Witt was excellent, moving to 5-0 on the year, as he fired 5-2/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen.

Against Virginia, if the UT starter needs to be relieved, look for Pierce to call on another freshman late in the game: Aaron Nixon.

Nixon's 25 appearances this season trail only Witt's 27, but his last appearance on the mound was 10 days ago, against South Florida in the Austin Super Regional. But even then, he tossed just one inning.

As a result, Nixon will be rested and ready to go if his number is called. He ranks third on the team in ERA at 2.35 and has allowed 24 hits in 30-2/3 innings.


Riley Zayas

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

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