HOUSTON – Texas senior righthanded pitcher Nathan Thornhill returned for his senior season for moments like these.
As a junior who logged a lot of innings for the Longhorns last season, Thornhill, like the rest of his teammates, was devastated when the traditional power failed to make the NCAA postseason in 2013. Thornhill, who was a 24th-round selection to the Houston Astros last summer, had the option to skip his senior season and head the professional baseball route.
Thornhill chose to finish out his college career and has never looked back. With the Longhorns losing elite lefthanded pitcher Dillon Peters to a season-ending injury earlier this week, head coach Augie Garrido turned to Thornhill for the Houston Regional opener against old rival Texas A&M, the two teams meeting for the first time since a 2012 series in Austin.
No pressure, right? Not for Thornhill. The veteran righty put together one of his most impressive performances of the season in front of a Reckling Park record crowd of 6,603, leading the way to a dominant 8-1 victory over the Aggies.
“I thought Nate was just spectacular. And even though he got into a couple of situations, he pitched out of them and the rest of the team was very good behind him defensively,” Texas coach Augie Garrido said. “We got off to a good start in the early innings and had one of our best rallies in the third inning.
Thornhill has received quite a bit of buzz in the last week. He was up to 92-93 with his fastball last weekend at the Big 12 tournament. And though he didn’t quite touch that against the Aggies, his overall stuff against them was good. He flashed a curveball and cutter against the Aggies, while some rustiness with his usual go-to changeup made him resort to his other offerings, successfully, I might add. The most impressive aspect of Thornhill's game, as showcased against the Aggies, is his poise and ability to stay within the situaiton.
The righty finished the afternoon with a season-high seven strikeouts, three walks, and allowed just a run on six hits in seven innings, dropping his impressive earned-run average to 1.47.
“I thought he really located well. He threw his fastballs, which we were late on, and he threw his off speed at us pretty well,” Texas A&M outfielder Jace Statum said. “He could use his fastball as a strikeout pitch, and he got us. We popped out a lot more than we could’ve put it in the ground, just hitting balls up the middle. We just got ourselves out.”
While Thornhill dealt for the Longhorns, Texas A&M junior righthanded pitcher Daniel Mengden, as has been the case a few times this season, struggled with his command and left a lot of fastballs and sliders over the plate. Texas made him pay dearly for that, especially early, as it started the bottom of the first inning with a solo home run to right field from Brooks Marlow, while the Longhorns chipped in another run in the second, and had the exclamation point in the third inning with a four-run frame.
“They had a couple of guys hitting good pitches, but overall, I just wasn’t getting ahead,” Mengden said. “It was a bad start. It’s hard to come back when you’re down 7-1 after just three innings.”
Mengden sat his typical 89-93 with his fastball, but his slider wasn’t sharp. The middle of the UT lineup did the most damage to Mengden, with catcher Tres Barrera collecting two hits, including a double, and Madison Carter, C.J. Hinojosa and Collin Shaw also putting together two-hit performances.
“They [his players] extended rallies today,” Garrido said. “Those are the type of rallies that you need, and you’re either going to win or lose based on those rallies.”
As important as it was to beat the Aggies, another benefit to Thornhill going seven innings and the offense taking care of business was the ability to save some pitching. With Peters obviously out this weekend, and the rest of the year, the Longhorns didn't have to use righthander Parker French out of the bullpen. UT will start French Saturday afternoon in the winner's bracket contest.
There was a lot of drama and buildup for the showdown between Lone Star State rivals Texas and Texas A&M.
In the end, it was Thornhill and the Longhorns landing the first, decisive blow.
“I thought we were never going to play [Texas A&M] again, and I don't think we were supposed to. It was a lot of fun,” Texas shortstop C.J. Hinojosa said. “I have a bunch of friends over there that play on that team. Jerseys didn't mean anything. It was just us playing against the ball.”