Texas’ season comes to close in Omaha

Travis Hlavinka

OMAHA, Neb. — At the hands of the Florida Gators’ pitching staff, the Texas offense suffocated.

In their second game of the 2018 College World Series, offensive struggles eventually led to the No. 13 Longhorns falling to defending champion No. 1 Florida, 6-1, at TD Ameritrade Park on Tuesday afternoon. This time, Texas’ second loss at the College World Series ended the 2018 season.

Most of the offensive woes for Texas came at the fingertips of Florida starting pitcher Jackson Kowar. Kowar, who was the 33rd overall pick of the 2018 MLB draft, definitely looked the part of a top professional prospect Tuesday afternoon. Through 6.2 innings, Kowar struck out a season-high 13 batters and allowed only three hits.

“He was very locked in,” head coach David Pierce said. “The thing about Kowar is that when you have stuff like that, it’s one thing, but when you mix stuff with command, that’s when you’re a first-rounder. That’s what he is.”

Texas’ pitching performance slightly resembled its offensive output, though not quite as harsh. Junior Blair Henley, who was tasked with starting Tuesday’s game, was inconsistent early and often throughout the afternoon.

In just 2.2 innings pitched, Henley allowed one run on four hits and walked four. All four hits and two of his walks came in the early stages of the inning, which put Henley in tough positions he then had to fight tooth and nail to free himself from.

With two outs in the third inning, he was replaced by junior Chase Shugart, who, had it not been for throwing 11 pitches in Sunday afternoon’s game against Arkansas, would have likely started the game. Shugart performed admirably for the majority of his outing, until, similarly to Sunday’s game, the sixth inning arrived.

Down 1-0 going into the sixth, the Longhorns were neck-and-neck with the Gators. But a four-run sixth, capped off by a three-run home run from Jonathan India, SEC Player of the Year and the fifth pick of the 2018 MLB draft, essentially put all hopes of a Texas upset to bed.

In total, Shugart went for 4.1 innings and allowed five earned runs, four of them in the sixth inning, on five hits and struck out six.

“I felt like I gave up three at-bats right there (in the sixth) the whole time I pitched,” Shugart said. “I felt like I was in my zone, and that was the only inning I was ever out of it.”

Offensively, senior Jake McKenzie and junior Masen Hibbeler held their paces as Texas’ best hitters in the College World Series. Former walk-on McKenzie and junior college transfer Hibbeler went a combined 4-8 on the day. Over the two-game stint in Omaha, the two had a combined average of .375, 100 points higher than the team average.

McKenzie, whose college baseball career has come to a close following the loss, had a strong showing at the plate throughout the entire postseason. Texas’ seasonlong No. 9 hitter was moved to the No. 6 spot during the postseason and flourished as a middle-of-the-order hitter. Although he played a large role in the team’s advancing to Omaha, McKenzie made it known the way he played won’t change what he’s going to take away from this team.

“I haven’t really looked at my stats all year,” McKenzie said. “Doesn’t make a difference to me. I’m going to remember the guys more than anything.”

Outside of his teammates, McKenzie jokingly added one more thing that he will remember, the one striking outlier this 2018 Texas baseball season will be remembered for.

“I think it’s going to be the year Kody Clemens hit 24 bombs,” McKenzie said.

Texas finished the year with a 42–23 record, an unlikely feat after going 9–9 to start the season. Pierce, whose emotions settled somewhere between pride and sorrow, had nothing but positive things to say about what his team accomplished this year.

“There’s nobody in this room and nobody in the country (who) expected this team to be here,” Pierce said. “And they did a heck of a job from start to finish, from the fall ball into early spring. The things that they had to accomplish to get here (are) incredible.”