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Texas Crashes Party in Greenville, Forces Deciding Game 3

GREENVILLE, N.C. — The party was on in Greenville.

East Carolina right fielder Jacob Jenkins-Cowart launched a three-run home run off the scoreboard in the fifth inning, giving the Pirates a 6-2 lead. The record crowd of 5,807 in Clark-LeClair Stadium went bonkers, the press box was shaking and it was hard to fight the feeling that ECU was on the fast track to Omaha.

Another run in the top of the seventh on a wild pitch put the Pirates up 7-2, putting them nine outs away from clinching it.

But at that moment, it was worth remembering a quote from ECU shortstop Zach Agnos after Friday’s Pirates win, in which the team also built a 7-2 advantage before having to pull away late when Texas made a comeback.

“At 7-2, I didn’t even feel comfortable. I felt like it was a one-run game with their offense. No lead is safe with them,” Agnos said at the time.

Saturday’s game followed a similar path, but this time, Texas finished the job with a 9-8 win, forcing a winner-take-all game for a trip to the College World Series Sunday afternoon.

The comeback started in earnest in the bottom of the seventh. After two quick, routine outs, shortstop Trey Faltine doubled and center fielder Douglas Hodo III lined a home run to right field. That cut the 7-2 deficit to 7-4.

It continued into the bottom of the eighth, and this time it started right away. Second baseman Murphy Stehly singled, Austin Todd singled and third baseman Skyler Messinger lifted a three-run home run to right field to tie it 7-7.

After a fly out off the bat of catcher Silas Ardoin, right fielder Dylan Campbell scorched a line drive out to right field to put Texas back on top 8-7.

“That just goes to say who we are as a team,” Campbell said. “No matter what the score is or how late in the game it is, we just know that we’re never out of it. We just keep fighting until the end.”

The last embers of the party that was going on in Greenville caught fire again in the top of the ninth, when ECU second baseman Jacob Starling hit a towering solo home run that hooked around the foul pole, tying the game back up 8-8.

But Texas made sure to extinguish those flames with another rally in the bottom of the ninth. Against Wyatt Lunsford-Shenkman, first baseman Ivan Melendez singled, DH Austin Todd was intentionally walked and Silas Ardoin drew a walk to load the bases ahead of Campbell lining a ball deep into the right field corner for the walk-off hit.

Lunsford-Shenkman had been working heavily with a slider moving low and away from righthanded hitters, and on the final pitch of the game, it looked like he and catcher Ben Newton were crossed up.

As the pitch approached, Newton started to drop as if to block a breaking ball, but Lunsford-Shenkman delivered a fastball on the outer half. Campbell was ready for it and hit it hard.

“I just knew there were going to be a lot of people on their feet, a lot of noise and stuff,” Campbell said. “It’s kind of like you’ve got to want to be in that situation and I wanted it and I was ready for it.”

In the big picture, Campbell’s emergence has really increased the depth of Texas’ lineup. One season after hitting .189 in just 53 at-bats, Campbell has clubbed 10 homers, giving the Longhorns seven different hitters in the order with double-digit home run totals.

“Really, he’s just worked,” said Texas coach David Pierce of Campbell’s steps forward. “So many high school players come in and they just want to be dead pull guys and everything is middle in and from the shortstop to the left field line, and I think our team has just bought into our coaches and have really done a good job of just understanding what the plan is and then trying to go out there and execute it every day.”

Texas didn’t just have to fight back offensively Saturday, but it had to fight on the mound to keep ECU at bay.

For the second straight day, the Longhorns’ starter lasted just four innings and had a higher total of runs allowed than innings pitched. Friday it was Pete Hansen giving up six runs in four innings. This time it was fellow lefthander Lucas Gordon giving up five runs in four innings.

It wasn’t perfect through the middle innings. ECU added on several times as Texas went from righthander Marcus Olivarez to lefthander Luke Harrison to righthander Tristan Stevens, but things ended on a high note for the Longhorns, with righthander Andre Duplantier II getting some big outs down the stretch.

He did give up the tying home run to Starling, but that was the only run he allowed, and one of just two hits surrendered, in 2.2 innings. It was a breakout moment for a pitcher who has battled injuries during his Texas career.

“I’m just very grateful, because this time last year, I was watching the team and really wanting to be out there,” Duplantier said. “Regardless of what’s happening, being able to be out there right now means a lot because last year I was sitting in Austin watching it happen.”

The Texas win also sets up an absolute blockbuster of a series finale in Greenville on Sunday.

For Texas, Omaha is simultaneously right where it was expected to end the season after beginning the 2022 campaign No. 1 in the country and also a place where it didn’t look like it was going to make it to when it fell on hard times during the middle of the season.

And no one, most assuredly no one in Greenville, will need to be told what the deciding game means for ECU. It’s a program playing for its first appearance in the College World Series.

Stakes like that are what makes this time of year special.

“Two great teams fighting for Omaha,” Pierce said. “It doesn’t get any better.”

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