From his seat on the team bus on Sunday morning, Texas sophomore righthander Kyle McCulloch, music buzzing through his iPod earbuds, peered through the tinted window next to him. As Omaha's rolling hills flashed by, McCulloch's mind wandered not to his impending start in Game 2 of the College World Series best-of-three finals but to what a privilege it is to wear the burnt orange. "I was thinking about when I was a kid rooting for Texas teams--the football team in the fall and the baseball team in the College World Series," says McCulloch, who awoke in his hotel room at 5:30 that morning and lay in bed for hours, unable to fall back asleep. "With all the great tradition and history of the school, to be able to pitch for Texas in a championship game, that's unbelievably huge."
McCulloch and his teammates know that no matter what they accomplish after leaving Austin, they'll always be remembered in the state for what they did as Longhorns. And so it was that behind a dominant performance from McCulloch--he allowed two runs and struck out eight over 6 2/3 innings--this team sealed its legacy, beating Florida 6-2, on the heels of a 4-2 victory in Game 1 last Saturday, to win the school's sixth baseball national title and second in four years. This one was indeed Made in Texas: All but one of the Longhorns who took the field in the championship series were born in the Lone Star State.
Though Texas finished third in the Big 12, the expectations for this club were as high as the mid-90Àö temperatures that lingered all week. This was the Longhorns' fourth straight world series appearance, and many of the thousands of fans who made the 850-mile drive from Austin wore T-shirts emblazoned with university of texas-omaha. When the Longhorns qualified for the CWS after their Super Regional win at Ole Miss three weeks ago, coach Augie Garrido said he felt not happiness but relief. "It's mandatory for us to be [in Omaha]," he said.
Garrido, 66, may be the winningest coach in Division I baseball, with 1,582 victories in 37 seasons, but winning it all has not come as easily. In 2004 Texas waltzed into Omaha as the overwhelming favorite, only to be swept in the championship series by Cal State--Fullerton. Players and coaches all said that the '04 team was too tightly wound, so last weekend Garrido, a mellow, Zenlike leader, did what he could to loosen up his charges. Before Game 1 he showed the Longhorns a humorous clip from the upcoming Bad News Bears remake. (Director Richard Linklater, an Austin resident, is a friend of Garrido's.) Before Game 2 Garrido played the scene from Bull Durham in which Kevin Costner seduces Susan Sarandon. "[Garrido] didn't really explain why he wanted to show that one," says first baseman Chance Wheeless. "It got us all laughing, so I guess it did the job."
Relaxed and confident, Texas dominated this CWS, going 5-0 for the week and beating opponents with overpowering pitching, strong defense and timely hitting. The Longhorns trailed or were tied in the late innings of a game only once all week, on June 22, when they were knotted 3-3 entering the ninth against Baylor. That's when Wheeless, despite a dislocated right shoulder, which had been popping out with each swing, hit an improbable walk-off home run to secure Texas a spot in the championship series.
Slugging was not the Longhorns' usual game. All season long they had beaten opponents with small ball and solid pitching, and by and large that continued in Omaha. Texas laid down 10 sacrifice bunts in its five CWS games and scored only 24 runs, tying Fullerton for the lowest output by a national champion since 1993. Gone, it seems, are the days of gorilla ball from the late '90s, when baseballs were regularly launched out of Rosenblatt Stadium to the pings of aluminum bats. This year's eight teams batted a collective .251 in Omaha and averaged just 1.6 homers and 8.3 runs per game, the latter the lowest figure since '73.
The two games in the championship series followed the low-scoring trend, as Longhorns pitchers shut down the power-hitting Florida lineup. The Gators' slugging first baseman, Matt LaPorta, who led the nation in home runs (26), was a quiet 2 for 6 with two RBIs over the weekend. Texas third baseman David Maroul provided fireworks on offense (a homer in each game of the finals) to earn tournament Most Outstanding Player honors, but no Longhorns were more important during the week than starters McCulloch and redshirt freshman righthander Adrian Alaniz.
The unflappable Alaniz kicked off Texas's world series roll by allowing one run in seven innings in a 5-1 victory over Baylor on June 18. Two days later McCulloch overpowered No. 1 Tulane, shutting out the Green Wave for seven innings in a 5-0 win. In Game 1 of the championship series Alaniz was brilliant again, using a barrage of breaking-ball first-pitch strikes and impeccable command to befuddle Florida hitters, allowing two runs in seven innings.
While McCulloch, whose dad, Mike, was a member of the Texas football team from 1970 to '72, hails from Houston, Alaniz was raised in Sinton (pop. 5,676), a dot on the map about 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico in South Texas, and turned down football scholarships to Colorado and Nebraska to join Garrido's Longhorns. "Once in a while I wonder what might have been," Alaniz says, "but my love was always baseball, and this is what I'm going to do. Pitching for Texas, that's a dream too."
Though McCulloch and Alaniz will return next season and the team's starting lineup last weekend featured four sophomores, the Longhorns will have some big holes to fill. Texas loses its top hitter (shortstop Seth Johnston, who was selected by the Padres in the fifth round of last month's major league draft); its ace closer (J. Brent Cox, the Yankees' second-round pick); and one of the country's top defensive catchers (Taylor Teagarden, taken by the Rangers in the third round). An hour after Sunday's game Garrido was asked to assess his team's chances to repeat in 2006. "We've lost a lot of leadership on this team," he said. "We'll be turning it to [McCulloch] and the group of sophomores. There's a lot to be done."
Still, Garrido and the Longhorns, as would be expected, are already planning their next trip to Omaha.
This was the Longhorns' fourth straight appearance in the world series, and many of their fans wore T-shirts emblazoned with UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS-OMAHA.
Photographs by Damian Strohmeyer
Behind McCulloch (above), Alaniz and closer J. Brent Cox (opposite, center) Texas ran the table in Omaha.
Photographs by Damian Strohmeyer
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