Houston Regional has perfect ending
Texas and Texas A&M will play Game 7 for a spot in the super regionals
HOUSTON -- Texas and Texas A&M players and coaches have spent sufficient time the past few days explaining that the team in the other dugout didn't matter. It's about baseball, they said; any rivalry talk is secondary to taking care of business.
But actions speak louder than words.
One simple gesture late Sunday night illustrated that point.
For a few hours on Friday then a few more on Sunday, the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry showed itself to be alive and well at Reckling Park, where the teams clashed twice in the Houston Regional of the NCAA baseball championship. The Aggies and Longhorns will do so one more time at 7 p.m. ET Monday on ESPNU to decide who moves on to the super regionals.
In many ways, it's poetic that the Houston Regional comes down to these two.
Texas and Texas A&M, longtime rivals separated by 100 miles, are standing on opposite sides of a seemingly uncloseable gap created by Texas A&M's Big 12 exit and subsequent entry into the SEC.
The Lone Star State's flagship universities hadn't met in any of the "big three" sports -- football, basketball or baseball -- since the split until the NCAA selection committee brought them together Friday afternoon to kick off a wild weekend of baseball.
In a storybook turn of events, they meet again Monday to decide the winner of the region.
How they got to this point is a compelling story unto itself.
It began rather uneventfully on Friday. There was sufficient hype to build up the reunion of Texas and Texas A&M and the anticipation could be easily seen as fans filed into the ballpark. There were fans tailgating, fight songs coming from car stereo speakers.
As the first inning got underway, a woman in a maroon blouse emerged from the tunnel behind home plate. Like dozens of fans, she searched for her seat. As she peered around the corner down the third-base line, where most of the Aggies sat, she was struck by the lack of empty chairs. "Are you kidding me?" she proclaimed in bewilderment.
By the time everyone made it into the building, it was the largest crowd in Reckling Park history: 6,603.
Texas infielder Brooks Marlow set the tone with a first-inning solo home run. The Longhorns jumped on Texas A&M starter Daniel Mengden early on and chased him from the game while compiling seven runs in the first three innings.
During a mound conference in the bottom of the first inning, Longhorns fans' confidence was audible.
"Texas!" they yelled, "fight!"
The Longhorns eventually sealed an 8-1 win to open regional play. The Longhorns looked strong, while the Aggies looked like a team with much work to do.
As Texas A&M headed to the losers bracket, Texas prepared to play Rice, host of the Houston Regional and a team with which Texas has had a healthy baseball rivalry. The tension was evident from the beginning of what would be become an 11-inning slugfest.
Texas is no stranger to long, drawn-out regional games. The Longhorns were part of an NCAA all-division record 25-inning game that lasted more than seven hours against Boston College in the Austin Regional in 2009.
Austin Wood, who was the story that May night after he threw 169 pitches in 13 scoreless innings of relief in the marathon battle, was in the right-field bleachers on Saturday night. He said it was the first Texas game he's attended all season.
Intensity steadily increased as the innings wore on and seemed to reach a boiling point at the end of the eighth after Texas scored a run to tie the game. As Texas' Mark Payton scored the tying run, words were exchanged between some Longhorns and Rice pitcher Trevor Teykl.
Later in the inning, after Teykl -- who spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons with Texas before transferring to junior college, then Rice -- struck out Kacy Clemens, he glared at the Texas dugout as he stalked off the mound and Texas' Brooks Marlow could be seen yelling back at Teykl.
"That's just two competitive teams playing baseball," Marlow said after the game. "There's no right or wrong ... there's going to be a winner and a loser. Both teams battled it out and we came out a winner."
The Longhorns did, after a clutch relief pitching performance from John Curtiss, who pitched four scoreless innings and struck out four to seal the 3-2 win, which concluded at 1:12 a.m.
As Texas' players packed up their stuff and prepared to head out, shortstop C.J. Hinojosa, who hit the sacrifice fly that scored Payton to tie the game in the eighth, found his family. He shared a hug with them and posed for a photo.
"I'm tired," Hinojosa said.
After 11 innings and 3 hours, 27 minutes of competitive baseball, that's justified.
Texas A&M appeared to be on the brink of elimination Sunday afternoon. After ousting George Mason 7-3 on Saturday, the Aggies trailed Rice 6-0 with only nine outs remaining.
Then with one swing of the bat, everything changed.
Junior Cole Lankford engaged in an 11-pitch standoff with Chase McDowell, fouling off seven of the right-hander's pitches en route to working a full count.
Twice, Lankford gave the ball a ride down the right-field line, only to see them pull foul. That was enough to bring a nervous Aggies crowd to its feet in anticipation of Lankford's final swing, which held true over the right-field fence for a grand slam to cap off a five-run inning.
Suddenly, the Aggies had made it a game and their portion of the crowd was alive and well.
The Aggies added two runs in the eighth to take a 7-6 lead, but Rice struck back in the top of the ninth with a solo blast by Skyler Ewing to tie the game. Eventually, extra innings were required and more drama ensued.
In the top of the 10th, a close call in the outfield sparked some controversy in the ballpark. Texas A&M center fielder Krey Bratsen dove to catch a sinking line drive off the bat of Hunter Kopycinski and there was a question as to whether he caught the ball or trapped it between his glove and the ground or maybe he'd caught it and lost it in the transfer to his throwing hand.
Rice's Kirby Taylor, who was at second before Kopycinski's swing, rounded third and arrived at home, assuming it was a hit. When the umpire finally signaled that the ball hit the ground, Taylor stomped emphatically on the plate three times as the Rice dugout came out to celebrate.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M coach Rob Childress pled his case. Incessantly. So much so that he eventually got ejected.
Crew chief Frank Sylvester later said that because there were fewer than two outs and runners on base, they couldn't change a "no-catch" to a "catch" by rule and that none of the other umpires had any overwhelming information to change the call.
That mattered little to the Aggies. As the inning ended, catcalls from A&M fans rang out.
"He caught it!" one man yelled. "You got it wrong, and what's worse is that you know you got it wrong!"
Between innings, a young boy standing near his father asked, "Is the game almost over?"
"No, hopefully not," his father replied.
"Because we have to score two."
In the bottom of the 10th, the Aggies worked some magic and got the tying run across. With a runner on third, Rice pitcher Matt Ditman's wild pitch opened the door for Bratsen to come charging home.
As he crossed home plate and ran toward the Aggies' dugout, he yanked off his helmet and flung it in the air while his teammates mobbed him.
The Aggies had survived to see one more game, a showdown with Texas 70 minutes later.
After a dramatic come-from-behind victory, Texas A&M and its fans had to recover.
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Beverly Stein, catcher Troy Stein's mother, stood at the edge of the first row of seats nearest the A&M dugout, waiting to catch a glimpse and share a word with her son. Her heart might as well have been beating out of her chest.
"I might throw up," she exclaimed.
Her emotions were running understandably high. Parents ride the emotional roller coaster as much as their children do, sometimes more. Troy is a senior, so these are the final days of his collegiate baseball career.
"I don't want it to end," she said. "But I know it will eventually."
She chatted briefly with Troy's girlfriend and a few other parents before ushers cleared the stadium. Everyone must leave before re-entering. Only an hour remained until the rematch. The Houston Regional had come full circle.
It's Texas vs. Texas A&M and it seems only right for it to end this way.
The weather decided to cooperate with Sunday's nightcap. It's June in Texas, so it isn't exactly cool, but the upper 80s/low 90s and humidity of the afternoon had subsided somewhat and it cooled to 84 degrees. The skies were mostly clear and a light breeze was coming in from left field at the game's start.
As the teams lined up for the national anthem, it was a picturesque evening in Houston. As first pitch approached, Metallica's "Enter Sandman" blasted from the stadium speakers. It was appropriate, because soon, light would exit and night would enter.
After a record 6,603 showed up for the first Aggies-Longhorns clash, another 5,011 were present for the encore. In six games, the Houston Regional has drawn 30,076 fans (5,013 per game), setting Reckling Park records for both total and average attendance for a regional.
As the game was about to begin, a Texas A&M fan in a white cap and polo spotted a media member wearing a credential that's a shade of orange.
"How come they give y'all burnt orange credentials?" the fan quipped.
Yes, the rivalry is alive and well. And in front of the maroon and burnt orange-clad crowd, Texas A&M true freshman Tyler Stubblefield delivered the performance of his life.
In a ballgame that's tight from start to finish, Stubblefield battled, tossing 134 pitches and going the distance. His final pitch struck out Texas outfielder Ben Johnson looking. The Aggies' dugout came sprinting out to mob Stubblefield in celebration, but just before they arrived at the mound he turned toward the Texas dugout and flashed the "horns down" sign.
Afterward, Stubblefield was the star of the show, with fans leaning over the railing near the A&M dugout, asking for autographs. He signed several then later finds his father for a warm embrace just outside the dugout.
Gandy Stubblefield fought back tears of joy describing how proud he is of his son.
"I mean that's a ... that's a dream," he said. "That's a dream, man."
Fortunately, we're guaranteed one more Lone Star showdown on Monday. And if the statement Stubblefield made with pointer finger and pinkie is an indication, the drama isn't over in Houston.