OMAHA, Neb. — Texas is in the same position it was in during its previous College World Series appearance. This time, the Longhorns are hoping for a different ending.
Nathan Thornhill carried a shutout into the eighth Saturday before UC Irvine’s Taylor Sparks hit his nation-leading ninth triple to start a three-run inning. It sent the Longhorns to a 3-1 loss in the opening game of the College World Series.
The Longhorns (43-20), who also lost their first CWS game in 2011, hope to avoid their second straight two-and-out in Omaha. They play Monday against the loser of Saturday’s late game between Louisville and Vanderbilt.
“This is not the position we want to be in, but I don’t think we’re going to feel sorry for ourselves,” Thornhill said. “We’re going to try to find a way to dig out of it. We’ve got a lot of fight in us.”
The wind was blowing in at 35 mph at cavernous TD Ameritrade Park, and Sparks’ hit was the longest of the day. It barely reached the warning track.
But with Texas’ outfield playing extremely shallow, his drive to left-center was more than enough to get the Anteaters’ offense going.
“The wind was really howling, so I knew anything lifted, it wasn’t going anywhere,” Sparks said. “I just tried to stay flat with that and was able to travel through the gap. It’s definitely my most special and favorite hit so far.”
Texas is making its record 35th CWS appearance, with 75-year-old coach Augie Garrido trying to win a national title in a fifth decade. He won championships with Cal State Fullerton in 1979, 1984 and 1995 and with Texas in 2002 and 2005.
“Remember in ’79 when Fullerton lost the first game in the double elimination? I said they were going to win?” Garrido said. “So we’ve got a chance, we’ve got the right attitude, we’ve got the right group of guys.”
One of the last four teams selected for the NCAA tournament, UC Irvine (41-23) continued to amaze during a postseason run in which it knocked off No. 1 national seed Oregon State and swept a super regional at Oklahoma State.
“By keeping the game close, and with there being no clock in this game, it was possible for us to do what we did in the eighth,” Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. “Taylor Sparks had a spectacular game both on offense and defense. We strung together some hits, so it was a good win for us.”
The Anteaters advanced to a winner’s game Monday against Vanderbilt or Louisville.
The Anteaters had been shut out for seven innings before they broke through against Thornhill (8-3) and reliever John Curtiss.
Thornhill allowed only three runs over 37 innings in six starts before Adam Alcantara singled and scored on Sparks’ triple. It was his third hit of the game.
Curtiss came on, and Chris Rabago drilled his first pitch up the middle to score Sparks. Jonathan Munoz added an RBI single for a two-run lead.
Evan Brock (9-6) earned the win in his first relief appearance of the season. The mustachioed senior held the Longhorns hitless the last 2 1-3 innings and struck out the side in the ninth.
Texas scored its only run in the second inning on a squeeze play, and Thornhill hummed along in the middle innings after working out of early trouble.
The Anteaters stranded runners in scoring position each of the first four innings, leaving a man at third three times, and then had only one man reach base until the eighth.
The Longhorns had ample opportunity to pad their early lead against Irvine starter Andrew Morales, but they stranded 10 runners through five innings, eight of them in scoring position.
Mark Payton’s streak of reaching base ended at 101 games.
“So what? We lost,” Payton said. “It’s something I didn’t pay attention to.”