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Duane Cross | | June 16, 2014

Cross: How bullpens will help decide CWS

  Travis Duke retired the final five hitters on Monday to help Texas stave off elimination.

OMAHA, Neb. -- With the game on the line, it’s tough to “get ’em on, get ’em over, get ’em in” when the guys on the bump are throwing seeds. To that end, the arms race -- especially bullpens -- may prove to be the difference-maker for whichever team survives the double-elimination, best-of-three College World Series gantlet.

On Monday, Texas and Louisville squared off in a loser-leave-town tussle that featured exceptional pitching from the Longhorns, who were aided by four Cardinals miscues, in a 4-1 UT victory.

Texas starter Parker French entered the game with a nondescript 6-5 record -- but with a stellar 2.45 ERA. The numbers point to French doing his job but not receiving a lot of run support. In his five losses, the Longhorns scored nine runs while he surrendered 11 earned in 24.2 innings.

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Against Louisville, French allowed only four hits and one earned run in 7.1 innings to pick up the win. And when the hook came, the Longhorns backed up French with Travis Duke: 1.2 no-hit, no-walk, no-chance-for-Louisville innings. Duke’s ERA is now 0.32 (one earned run allowed in 28.1 innings).

Twice -- in the first and seventh innings -- Louisville led off with a base hit against French … only to be doubled-up one batter later.

“The game was controlled, from our point of view, by the pitching of Parker French and Travis Duke,” Texas head coach Augie Garrido said. And even after the Longhorns’ 3-1 loss in Game 1 of the CWS, Garrido is confident his team can battle back, led by its deep pitching staff.

“[Our pitching] certainly gives us a chance,” said Garrido, who is looking to hoist the national championship trophy in a fifth different decade (1979, '84, '95, 2002 and '05).

“This format is not nearly as difficult to come out and win. It still is challenging, and you're one game down. … The short answer is, yes -- I think we have a pitching staff that can stand up to the number of games that we have to win to win the national championship.”

Each remaining CWS contender has firemen capable of extinguishing opponents’ hopes. In addition to Texas’ Duke and Chad Hollingsworth (1.36 ERA in 46.1 innings), the bullpens in Omaha feature:

• UC Irvine: Sam Moore (1.88 ERA, 23 saves in 43 IP) and Kyle Davis (1.37 ERA, 19.2 IP).

• Ole Miss: Josh Laxer (1.32 ERA, six saves in 34 IP) and Aaron Greenwood (2.09 ERA, four saves, 43 IP).

• TCU: Riley Ferrell (0.87 ERA, 15 saves in 41.1 IP) and Trey Teakell (2.22 ERA, two saves, 56.2 IP).

• Texas Tech: Jonny Drozd (2.10 ERA, five saves in 73 IP) and Cameron Smith (2.81 ERA, one save, 67.1 IP).

• Vanderbilt: Brian Miller (1.82 ERA, five saves in 34.2 IP) and Adam Ravenelle (1.46 ERA, one save, 37 IP).

• Virginia: Nick Howard (2.05 ERA, 19 saves in 30.2 IP) and Whit Mayberry (1.59 ERA, two saves, 51 IP).

“We knew they had a pretty good bullpen, with Nick Burdi coming in,” Texas outfielder Ben Johnson said. “We definitely knew we wanted to get a lead going into those last innings, and obviously we did that going in 3-1 in the ninth.”

Ah, Burdi -- yes, Louisville had its own power arm in the bullpen. Drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Twins, Burdi pitched the ninth and allowed an unearned run. He finished the season with a 0.49 ERA in 37 innings. Alas, the Cardinals’ defensive miscues cost him any chance of being a factor for the remainder of the tournament.

“Congratulate Texas,” UofL head coach Dan McDonnell said, “They pitched well. They played clean; they manufactured a run when they had a chance to. 

“When you don't play clean, obviously gets magnified out here,” he added. “And the value of scoring a run is so important that you do your best to try to score a run and you do your best to try not to give up a run. Unfortunately, we just gave them a few too many opportunities early.”

Ultimately pitching and defense will be the difference-maker in Omaha. Getting ahead in the count, keeping the ball low and on the black and relying on infielders and outfielders to take care of the rest is what Texas -- and six other teams -- are putting its faith in.

“It's awesome seeing your pitcher go out there, throw strikes like that to allow you to make plays,” Texas shortstop C.J Hinojosa said.

“Why not keep the pitch count down, save the bullpen and let [the defense] work and just worry about my job throwing strikes and let them do their job, which is pick it up and throw it,” French said. “They're really good at that, so I'm going to lean on them.”

Starters, relievers -- the theory remains the same: throw strikes and let the defense do its job. On Monday, Texas used that formula -- solid starting pitching, lights-out relief and stellar D -- to take another step toward the CWS finals. It’s a blueprint for success duplicated by every other contender in Omaha.

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