Anybody will admit that the Horns had an uphill battle to get to Omaha. Exactly how many hills Texas faced this season could be up for discussion. Despite a strong 17-6 start, Texas put up a 9-10 record in the month of April causing many fans to wonder if a regional was even in the future. By in May, Texas cleaned up its defense and managed to finish up the season with a sweep of the conference-leader, Texas A&M.
Although the Horns finished in fifth place, their sweep over the Aggies took them to Oklahoma City and the Big 12 Tournament with the wind at their backs. In another tough loss for the Horns, Missouri took the opening game in ten innings, but the Horns bounced back to topple the Aggies one more time and end up king of the hill with a tournament championship.
In Houston, things seemed familiar. Texas lost early and would need another revival. This time though, the Horns were looking to advance and avoid taking the bus back to Austin and waiting for next spring. A win over Sam Houston State on Saturday meant only St. John's and Rice stood in their way. St. John's had handed Texas its first loss in the regional and the Horns would have to even the score if they wanted their chance at Rice.
Texas was up 4-1 and starting pitcher Austin Wood (7-3) was well on his way to a complete game with two outs and a standing crowd in the ninth. This is until giving up consecutive singles and beaning the tying run to load the bags. Left fielder Carlos Del Rosario cranked a double to right field to bring the Red Storm within one and knock the tying run to third base. With the fans hanging on the edge of their seats and both teams' seasons hanging in the balance, Wood passed the mound off to Chance Ruffin despite a six-inning performance by the freshman the night before. Ruffin quickly loaded the bags with an intentional walk before Red Storm second baseman Gino Matias pinged a grounder to shortstop David Hernandez. A quick flip from Hernandez to Travis Tucker got the Horns out of their jam and kept them alive in Houston.
"Certainly an exciting game," Texas head coach Augie Garrido said between games. "It got down to a pitch where they were trying to pitch outside the strike zone to Kyle Russell and they got it up high enough on a change up where he could get the barrel on it and he hit it out of the park."
That pitch came in the seventh against St. John's, when Russell walked to the plate with two outs, a man on second and one home run short of the school career record. Two strikes later, a blast to the right field scoreboard gave Russell his record-breaking 56th career homer (edging out Jeff Ontiveros).
Russell's blast was a high point for the day, but the battle wasn't over yet. Owls still stood in Texas' path to the Super Regional and beyond.
Texas would have to take two of two from Rice to make it out alive. The Longhorns may have regained the wind in their sails but a long day and the eventual loss of two key players would end up taking its toll on the team. Left fielder Russell Moldenhauer's kneecap came out place in his last at bat against the Red Storm and third baseman Preston Clark had his own knee problem two innings into the Horns' first attempt at Rice.
The Owls got on the board first with two runs in the second and managed to tack on another in the third before the Texas bats woke up. In the bottom half of the third, Kyle Russell tied the score with his fourth home run in three games and 19th of the season.
Rice and Texas echoed each other with a run each in the sixth to keep things knotted until the Owls sparked a critical rally in the top half of the seventh. The Owls didn't stop rounding the bases until they had eaten through Cole Green and Stayton Thomas and forced Brandon Belt to slide over to the mound from first with bases loaded and one out. Belt gave up one more run before fanning center fielder Jared Gayhart for the third out. When the dust cleared, Rice had a 7-4 lead and moved out of reach for the Horns.
"They out-hit us, they out-pitched us, we played better defense than them but two out of three won," Garrido said.
The Horns worked through six pitchers before bringing Ruffin to the mound to wrap things up once again for the Horns. Cole Green (3-7) got the loss after giving up two hits, which sparked the Owls' seventh inning rally. Rice closer Bobby Bell (1-0) got the win for only giving up two hits and no runs in three and two-thirds innings of work.
"They really took apart our pitching with their hitting. Their three-run rally was nicely done," Garrido said.
So what separated Texas and Rice?
"The pitching and hitting. They struck out important batters," Garrido said. "(Reliever Matt Evers) threw us off balance because we were over-aggressive trying to win the game. We kept trying to attack his breaking ball. (Bell) really attacked the strike zone. He threw 95-percent strikes in the last three innings on the first pitch."
With one man left on base in the ninth, a double-play closed the book on the Longhorns' 2008 season. Texas finished things up with a record of 39-22 and failed to make it out of the regional for their third straight year.
"We're supposed to be in Omaha and we aren't going to be and it's my fault…but how did we play? Damn good at the beginning and damn good at the end," said Garrido. "A lot of teams would fall apart under our scrutiny. …It's disappointing, extremely disappointing and difficult because we know what the expectations are and we know what the criticisms are. It's still the way it is and it needs to be fixed. It's about the fundamentals of the game. I know how to fix it."