OMAHA, Neb. -- C.J Hinojosa was the talk of Omaha after becoming the first player to hit a home run at the 2014 College World Series on Tuesday. But his defense at shortstop continues to draw rave reviews, and more importantly, keep his Texas team in Omaha.
Hinojosa had a hand in 10 outs Friday afternoon against Vanderbilt – four putouts and six assists – in another Longhorns’ shutout victory, 4-0 against the Commodores.
It wasn’t always easy for him during a 2014 season that saw him make a team-high 17 errors. Hinojosa started Friday with a .945 fielding percentage. Partly because he gets to more balls than many shortstops in the country. His range is second to none among shortstops at the College World Series.Just how good is his range? With two outs in the eighth inning and Tyler Campbell standing on second base threatening to score Vanderbilt's first run of the day, Hinojosa was playing on the outfield grass against Vince Conde. If Conde hit a ball to the leftside of the infield, he would at the very least, knock the ball down. Conde ended up flying out, head coach Augie Garrido’s confidence in Hinojosa’s glove still showed.
“Go around the infield -- plays made defensively by [Hinojosa] and teammates were getting the outs on time,” Garrido said after his team beat Louisville on Monday.
Monday’s starter Parker French said it best about the guys behind him.
“I think when I step out there every day, every game, this is probably the best defense in the country,” French said. “I can say that with confidence. Up the middle -- everywhere. When they start making those plays, [it[ makes me more of I guess a strike‑throwing machine because they were going to be aggressive. Why not keep the pitch count down, save the bullpen and let them work and just worry about my job throwing strikes and let them do their job which is pick it up and throw it? They're really good at that.”
Nine of the first 21 outs involved Hinojosa, a Spring, Texas native, like when he threw out Vanderbilt designated hitter Nolan Rogers to end the seventh inning. His final assist came on the first batter of the ninth inning, on another chopper to shortstop. He’s certainly turned things around in the postseason, making just two errors in 10 games and only one at the College World Series. Hinojosa leads all players with 18 assists at the CWS.
Hinojosa is a big reason why the Longhorns have allowed just one run in their past three games and posted back-to-back shutouts against UC Irvine and Vanderbilt – the first team to allow zero runs in back-to-back games since Oregon State in 2006. In fact, Texas hasn’t allowed an opposing baserunner to touch third base in the past 19 innings. That’s right – more than two full games. Between the stellar pitching by the likes of starter Nathan Thornhill (8.0 IP, 6 hits, 1 BB, 5 SO) and the defense behind him, the Longhorns have rediscovered their stride just in time to allow only four runs in their first four CWS games – the third-fewest through four games in history.
“Obviously the game was dominated by [Thornhill] on the defensive side of it with good support from his teammates,” Garrido said. “It was pitching and defense, and we executed.”
That combination of pitching and defense works in tandem. Make good pitches and let the defense make plays behind you.
“From the infield perspective with with [Thornhill] pitching, we've got to be ready,” Hinojosa said. “There's going to be a lot of ground balls hit and as long as you're ready, you're seeing the ball off the bat and coach Tommy Nicholson helped us a lot with our first step making that a key focus for us because these guys pitching there's going to be a lot of ground balls.”
“The defensive side, it's just playing loose and the pitches that are thrown to the mitt, letting the defense work and throw strikes,” Texas centerfielder Mark Payton said. “That keeps the defense in the game and allows you to make plays.”
Friday, it wasn’t just a magnet in his glove. He must’ve had it in his back pocket, because in the first inning, Hinojosa was involved in one of the strangest plays at the College World Series. He came up with the bases loaded and one out when he lined a pitch up the middle in what looked like an opportunity for Vanderbilt to get out of the inning relatively unscathed with a double play. Except – it hit second base umpire Mark Uyl. After it was all sorted out, Hinojosa had his second RBI of the CWS and credited with a single.
Since the start of the NCAA tournament, everything seems to be going his way. Hinojosa extended his hitting streak to eight games with that infield single. Instead of a potential double play – or at the very least an out – Texas had its first run of the day.
“It may have been a tough double play,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “That's just anyone's guess. [Mark Uyl] has just got to work on his agility a little bit so he can move. But I don't know what would have happened had the ball gone by him. We may have gotten a break, I don't know, but there's nothing we can do about that.”
Hinojosa’s in the middle of everything in Omaha. And for the Longhorns to beat the Commodores again on Saturday and reach the CWS Finals, he better be again.