Tanner Witt wanted the ball. He felt ready with a four-run lead entering late into Tuesday afternoon. His pitch count was high, but it didn't matter.
Witt wanted the ball to start the ninth inning. How could David Pierce say no?
"The only thing I told him is that if you're out of gas, [Aaron] Nixon wants the ball," Pierce told reporters via Zoom following Texas' 8-4 win over No. 3 Tennessee at the College World Series. "And he's ready to go. And that was a fun moment because he definitely wanted the ball."
Witt needed to get past four Tennessee (50-18) batters to secure the win and remain in Omaha, Neb. for a chance at a national title. A single, two flyouts, and a fielder's choice later, the Longhorns (48-16) advance to Thursday to face the loser of Mississippi State and Virginia.
For even the most experienced pitchers, throwing to save a season will come with tension. Witt, a true freshman out of Houston, is different than most first-timers playing on the biggest stage in college baseball.
"I live for this moment. This is the moment I've always dreamed for," Witt said. "I love that big stage, big atmosphere. And I feel like I only get better in those situations because that's what I live for."
Both sides of the ball found its rhythm before the game concluded, but a pitching change helped. Tristan Stevens, the Longhorns' reliable No. 2, struggled to find consistency with his fastball, eventually allowing four runs off six hits and three walks.
Witt entered with a pair of runners on and allowed a single to Liam Spence to tie the game. Things could have gotten out of control if not for the defense. A clutch throw from Mitchell Daly to Trey Faltine ended the inning with a double-play to save a run.
Witt credited the defense for helping ease his nerves and pick him up to keep the game tied.
"I think we got one of the best defenses in the country and they showed it today," Witt said. "Every day they come out. They put the work in and it shows in the games. And our pitchers, I know I love it. They have a lot of energy."
A fourth-inning surge from the Longhorns' bat plated three runners to give Witt a 7-4 cushion. From there, it was a pitching performance for the ages.
Witt threw a season-high 78 pitches in 5 2/3 inning of work, allowing just two more Vols to reach base. He also struck out two and didn't allow a single walk.
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"His performance was just outstanding on the biggest stage when the team needed him more so than ever," Pierce said. "When you get postseason baseball, guys have to step up. And he did exactly that."
Witt's outing marks the 15th time this season of at least two innings of work. In line to be a starter for the 2022 season, there's no doubt he's earned the chance after Tuesday's performance.
A strong fastball put Tennessee on it's heels, but his change-up closed the door.
As Witt returned to the dugout, Stevens thanked him for bailing him out. As a reliever, it's his job to pick up the good and bad that come from the starter.
This time around, Witt picked up the pieces. He never looked back.
"I'm a bullpen guy, so I'm just doing my best to keep my team in the game," Witt said. "And he told me great job, way to get out of that. And I told him I'm going to keep going for him and everybody else on the team."
Texas will wait until Thursday for another elimination game. Witt likely will have to take another day off before heading back to the mound after a high pitch count.
As a parting gift for picking up his teammates, Witt was the only pitcher to play against Tennessee following Stevens. The bad news for Thursday's opponent and good news for Texas? A bullpen of talented arms still has yet to be unleashed.
"To be in the losers' bracket, 1-1, we're in pretty good shape with our arms," Pierce said. "We feel like we have Pete [Hansen] ready to go if that's who we go with. We've still got to talk about it. And then you've still got a lot of guys fresh."
CONTINUE READING: Texas Longhorns WR Jake Smith Enters Transfer Portal
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