Texas Baseball's Memorable Season Ends In College World Series
OMAHA, Neb. — Kody Clemens came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday with two outs and two runners on. Texas was trailing Florida by five runs in an elimination game at the College World Series and the Gators had All-American closer Michael Byrne on the mound to finish the game off.
The end of Texas’ memorable season was surely near.
Clemens lofted a well-struck ball to center field. The All-American second baseman had been responsible for so much magic for the Longhorns this season and his 24 home runs rank second in the country. He had been unstoppable in the final weekend of the regular season, when Texas won its first Big 12 Conference title since 2011, and in the Austin Regional and Super Regional, lifting the Longhorns to Omaha.
Time after time, in the biggest moments this season, Clemens had delivered.
But on Tuesday the magic ran out on Clemens and the Texas season. His fly ball died in center field, tracked down by Nick Horvath for the final out. Texas lost to Florida, 6-1, ending its season.
Texas (42-23) has been to the College World Series 36 times, more than any other program, and has won six national titles. It is not a program that is just happy to end its season in Omaha. But for this team—a team that started the year 9-9, that isn’t full of elite prospects, that did little easily—to be the one in coach David Pierce’s second season at the program’s helm to return to the CWS for the first time since 2014, a sense of satisfaction was well earned.
“They did a heck of a job from the start to finish, from the fall ball into early spring,” Pierce said. “The things that they had to accomplish to get here is incredible. And I can only say how proud we are as coaches and the effort that they gave us and the way they represented the University of Texas.”
The Longhorns, built on an impressive pitching staff and coming off a solid 2017 that ended in the Long Beach Regional final, came into the year ranked No. 14. But a typically ambitious non-conference schedule tested them, and they entered conference play at .500.
They were also tested emotionally early, when legendary coach Augie Garrido, who had recruited most of the team before retiring in 2016, passed away in March. They kept his memory with them all year, hanging his jersey in the dugout and wearing his initials and No. 16 on their hats and painting it into the Longhorn logo on Disch-Falk Field.
Texas took off as the calendar flipped to April, following a series loss to Kansas State. It lost just one series the rest of the season and put together a sensational stretch run to chase down Oklahoma State for the Big 12 title on the final weekend of the regular season. It stormed through the Austin Regional, knocking off archrival Texas A&M on the way, and then won back-to-back elimination games against upstart Tennessee Tech in the super regional.
“The attitude we had was gritty,” righthander Chase Shugart said. “We weren’t given anything; we had to take it. We took the Big 12 championship, like we needed, and the regional and super regional.
“We went out and competed every inning, every out, and that’s what good teams do. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”
That attitude was fostered during the fall and carried the Longhorns throughout the year. After losing tough series at Louisiana State and at home against Stanford, Texas hung tough together.
Clemens said the team’s camaraderie was critical to its success.
“Everybody would hang out with one another and everyone got along well,” he said. “I think that’s why the chemistry on the team was so good and that’s why we fought in the dugout and on the field all year.”
Collegiate Summer Leagues Face Daunting Challenges From Pandemic, Changing Landscape
The year's challenges for summer ball have been paired with several changes that have the potential to disrupt the entire ecosystem.
Clemens said he believes this year’s Longhorns will be remembered for their performance down the stretch and in their home regional and super regional. And while that is undoubtably a big part of Texas’ story in 2018, nearly all their most memorable moments came with Clemens at the plate.
“I think it’s going to be (remembered as) the year Kody hit 24 bombs,” senior first baseman Jake McKenzie said.
Clemens had hit just 10 career home runs before this season. He more than doubled that total while hitting .352/.444/.734. He was drafted 79th overall by the Tigers and was named a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. He produced magical moments all year long, but his work against Texas Christian on the final weekend of the regular season to claim the Big 12 title and in the regional and super regional, when he homered five times in six games, will long be remembered in Austin.
Clemens’ development was the most prominent, but he was far from the only Longhorn this year to take a significant step forward. Shortstop David Hamilton showed his offensive potential and is on track to next year be a top-three rounds pick. McKenzie emerged as an everyday first baseman after spending three years as a utility player. Relievers such as Parker Joe Robinson, Kameron Fields and Andy McGuire asserted themselves, helping make the bullpen one of Texas’ strengths.
“When you see that development and the growth of young men like took place in front of us, hell of a good season,” Pierce said. “These guys have—our coaches, our support staff and our players, especially—have nothing to be ashamed of. There’s 289 teams that didn’t make it here.”
The 2018 season may be remembered as the one that brought the swagger back to Texas. Now, the Longhorns will look to take the next step. Much of this team will be back next year. The Longhorns have an exciting incoming recruiting class that largely made it through the draft intact. They’ll have some big pieces to replace, as is the nature of college baseball, but this year’s Omaha experience figures to drive them for more.
“When you get a taste of this, it makes you hungry,” Pierce said. “This motivates you and this builds a culture of expectation from our program. And that’s the beauty of it.”
The next time Texas gets to Omaha it won’t be able to cast itself as an underdog. But those future Longhorns will owe a debt to the 2018 team for setting the stage for a return to prominence of one of college baseball’s premier programs.