Unlikely heroes advance Longhorns to Big 12 Championship

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Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

Momentum is a tricky thing in sports.

Usually, when a team has it, they don't let it go –– usually.

As the two teams returned to the field less than an hour after No. 2-seeded TCU made a statement in a 9-2 victory over No. 6-seeded Texas, any momentum that could’ve impacted game two should have gone to the Horned Frogs. That wasn’t the case.

Once game two began, Texas was visibly a different team. From diving catches and home runs to the energetic dugout, the Longhorns completely stole any momentum TCU wished to take into game two. They even created their own as they eliminated the sixth-ranked team in the country 9-3 to advance to the Big 12 Championship on Sunday.

And head coach David Pierce said he didn’t even have to tell his team all that much between games to get them ready for game two.

“They understood what’s at stake,” Pierce said. “And basically we were just very determined, and if they were going to beat us in game two they were going to have to earn it. I thought we went out and took the ballgame away.”

Although excitement came with the game two victory, Saturday got off to a sour start.

“Do we have to talk about game one at all?” Pierce said. “Can we just skip that one?”

Pierce’s recommendation is understandable –– game one was not pretty.

Junior Patrick Mathis’ leadoff home run, which wouldn't be his last of the day, gave Texas another early 1-0 lead in game one. However, this time it didn’t last. TCU showed why it’s ranked sixth nationally by doing what the Longhorns’ earlier tournament opponents couldn’t: counter Texas’ punch with a more explosive one.

The Horned Frogs’ four-run first inning matched with 14 hits and two Texas errors allowed TCU to leave nothing for question in a 9-2 blowout.

As the teams left the field and prepared for game two an hour later, Pierce went to somebody unexpected when the Longhorns found themselves on the brink of elimination: freshman Blair Henley.

“We knew if we were going into game two it was highly likely that Blair was going to throw,” Pierce said.

Although Blair admitted he had no clue he’d start until an hour before the game, the right-handed freshman looked like a veteran.

Henley held TCU to two unearned runs on four hits in his six inning performance Saturday night, just a few hours after the Horned Frogs put on a 14-hit show in game one.

“He’s got great stuff,” Pierce said. “As a freshman sometimes you lose your confidence and I think he just started gaining his confidence back and he showed that today.”

The Longhorns jumped out to a 3-0 lead once again after the first inning. This time, it was theirs to keep. Henley grounded the Horned Frog offense other than the two unearned runs in the second, which cut Texas’ lead to 3-2. But another unlikely hero stepped up for Texas.

With Texas’ lead down to one run, junior catcher Michael Cantu stepped into the batter’s box with two on in the fifth and delivered arguably the biggest hit of the game: a three-run blast to the deepest part of the park.

“I didn’t know if the wind was going to knock it down. I didn’t know what the wind was doing, but I knew I hit it pretty well,” Cantu said. “I was praying it went out and thanked god it went out.”

The ball soared over the left center wall 415 feet away from the plate, giving Texas a 6-2 cushion before Patrick Mathis crushed his second home run of the day, punctuating Texas’ 9-3 game two victory.

“Obviously we’re pretty excited,” Henley said. “We got a good win against a really good team I think we’re in a great position to do well in the regional next week, so it was a really big win.”

The Longhorns’ win Saturday night advances them to the Big 12 Championship where they’ll play No. 8-seeded Oklahoma State Sunday at 1 p.m. The Cowboys, who have played inspired ball as of late, beat No. 1-seeded Texas Tech and still have a lot to play for.

With the NCAA regionals approaching, teams will soon find out their postseason fate after the selection show Monday. The Cowboys aren’t the No. 8-seeded team by accident. They did poorly in conference with a 8-13 record. They know the only way they will play in this year’s postseason is if they get an automatic bid, which is what winning the Big 12 Championship would do.

However, Texas has something other than the championship possibly on the line as well. A Longhorn victory would give Texas a strong case to host a regional in Austin, Texas, where the Longhorns seem to be playing their best baseball with a 27-8 home record compared to a 9-13 record away from UFCU Disch-Falk Field.

“I think we’re in a great position,” Pierce said. “It’s going to be up to the committee. We’ve got a lot of positives on our resume. There’s no guarantees, but we’re just going to keep going out everyday and grinding. We’ve got an opportunity to win a championship against a very confident, a very good Oklahoma State team.”