Omaha on the horizon

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Texas pitchers Nathan Thornhill (right) and Corey Knebel embrace after Knebel clinched the final out of Texas’ 4-2 win over Arizona State in the Austin Super Regional.

Photo Credit: Ryan Edwards | Daily Texan Staff

Bottoms up.

That’s more than simply your cue to start celebrating Texas’ 34th trip to the College World Series and its second in three years. Rather, it’s a tip of the cap to one of the reasons these Longhorns are headed to Omaha: The bottom of the order finally started hitting.

Kevin Lusson, Jacob Felts and Jordan Etier — a trio of maligned hitters who never met a bad pitch they didn’t swing at — played like All-Americans the past two weekends.

There was Lusson in the regional, hitting two home runs and a walk-off single. There was Felts, notching two hits in the super regional and holding his ground at home plate as ASU’s Mike Benjamin barreled into him on Saturday in a play that swung the momentum of the series. And then there was Etier who, after going 0-for-2 with two strikeouts Friday night, sent a three-run shot deep into the night on Saturday, a spark of momentum from a guy who has struggled through a tough junior season.

“I’m particularly pleased for him,” said head coach Augie Garrido after the game. “He had had a rough night. Everybody is thrilled with the way he handled adversity.”

They aren’t the most celebrated — though Etier was trending on Twitter for 24 hours — but the truth of the matter remains that, without them, this season is no more.

“Lusson was really huge in the regionals, put some good at-bats together. Etier was the hero after a night he struggled more than I had ever seen him. Felts is probably one of the toughest kids on the team,” said senior Tant Shepherd.

Sunday’s game didn’t require any heroics. It was a game won on the mound, and it was a game won thanks to timely two-out hitting. In fact, Lusson was the only one of the three to register a hit. Texas’ season may have ended last week without them, or last night.

In a losing effort, Lusson lifted a three-run shot to right field against Kent State. Clearly, it helped his confidence, as he registered the winning hit the next morning against Texas State. Later that night, he again provided the exclamation point, by way of another homer, in a win over Kent State.

Confident and full of momentum, Texas cruised to a 5-0 win the next day to take the regional.

But after losing 3-1 on Friday against Arizona State, it looked like that the dream of Omaha was all but dead. After all, staff ace Taylor Jungmann had been used in the loss, and the offense looked especially anemic — which has seemed like the word of choice when describing the offense — pushing across just one run and leaving a crucial seven runners on base.

So the shot in the arm that the seven, eight and nine hitters delivered Saturday came at the perfect time. Lusson went 1-for-3 and walked. Felts put the tag on what would have been the tying run. The cushion — and the confidence — that Etier’s blast presented is obvious.

“His home run loosened us up,” Shepherd said. “It gave us momentum.”

You can certainly pinpoint other causes for the Longhorns going 5-0 in elimination games the past two weekends. Starting pitching has been strong, the bullpen has been excellent, and the coaching staff pushed all the right buttons at the right time. Young stars Corey Knebel, Erich Weiss and Mark Payton continue to shine. Elder statesmen Shepherd and Brandon Loy have delivered the big hits. When I asked Knebel the biggest reason Texas is going to Omaha, the closer appropriately replied.

“I’d go with pitching,” he said, smiling.

Garrido made it a point to recognize a rabid crowd.

“I don’t know if we would have held up if it weren’t for our fans,” he said. “I think our fans did more to win the game than any other time during the year.”

But Shepherd knew the major story line.

“The guys in the bottom of the order have been the unexpected heroes for us the past few weeks,” he said. “When they’re hitting, it’s a bonus for us.”