Tristan Stevens wanted the baseball.
When the sixth-year Texas Longhorns pitcher announced his return to the Forty Acres last summer after going undrafted in the 2021 MLB Draft, he noted, “I think we’ve got some unfinished business to attend to” after the Longhorns fell just short of the College World Series Finals days before.
So with the decisive third game of the Greenville Super Regional looming on Sunday and the Longhorns looking for a starter in their efforts to make a 38th trip to Omaha, Stevens texted head coach David Pierce and pitching coach Sean Allen that he wanted the start.
“This is exactly why I came back — to help this team get to Omaha,” Stevens said.
During breakfast on Sunday morning, Pierce, Allen, assistant Phillip Miller, volunteer assistant Troy Tulowitzki, and coordinator of hitting and pitching development Caleb Longley got together to discuss their pitching options.
“I think it was pretty cut and dry once we decided, knowing that most of the other guys we would have started we’re looking at two, maybe three [innings],” Pierce said. “You’re always in that question mark, ‘Can he go one more?’ Then with Tristan we felt like he was fresh enough, he had only thrown 23 pitches [in the super regional], he’d been up a couple of times, but we felt like his maturity and his experience in this environment in game three to send us to Omaha was the right choice.”
It wasn’t necessarily an easy choice, though — Stevens had only notched one victory during a start since pitching a season-high 7.0 innings against Incarnate Word on March 19. When conference play started the following week in Lubbock against Texas Tech, Stevens began to struggle after his strong start to the season, failing to record an out while allowing seven runs against the Red Raiders. Against TCU two weeks later, Stevens only lasted 2.0 innings after giving up six runs.
Following a Saturday loss to Oklahoma State in Austin when the season hit its low point during the sweep by the Cowboys, Stevens had sent a different type of text to Pierce, telling his head coach that he was willing to take on any role to help the team win. Stevens moved into the bullpen, returning to the role that helped him earn the nickname “The Fireman” earlier in his Texas career, eventually saving two games and earning his first win in six weeks when he pitched 3.2 innings against Louisiana Tech in the Austin Super Regional.
Nonetheless, with the staff having made their decision to start Stevens, Pierce texted the Missouri native who grew up a Longhorns fan after watching Vince Young win the Rose Bowl against USC. In turn, Stevens called his parents to tell them the good news.
“This is exactly why you came back,” they told him.
The first adversity that Stevens had to overcome on Sunday were the two long weather delays — a lightning strike in the area that pushed back first pitch by more than an hour and then a rain delay of almost four and a half hours as storms moved through the Greenville area, forcing Stevens to warm up twice before he threw his first pitch.
“It was honestly trying to find a good balance between being locked in, but not being overly like too locked in,” Stevens said of his mentality during the delays.
During those five and a half hours, the coaching staff helped Stevens keep his arm warm and loose. The motivation took care of itself.
“I didn’t need a lot to get going tonight with what was at stake — this is what I wanted,” Stevens said.
In front of another loud and rowdy crowd at Clark-LeClair Stadium, Stevens knew that the Pirates fans would help East Carolina use any momentum to their favor, so the goal was to limit the big innings that caused the Friday loss and put Texas in a late 7-2 hole on Saturday before the comeback that started in the seventh inning.
The offense did their part to take some air out of the crowd, scoring four runs in the top of the first inning before the second weather delay when first baseman Ivan Melendez hit a three-run home run and third baseman Skyler Messinger had an RBI single.
And although Stevens said he felt locked in from the start of the game, navigating the first inning wasn’t easy for the Texas starter as he struggled to locate his sinker down in the zone. East Carolina quickly took advantage, igniting the crowd with two singles. Attempting to work away against Pirates star Bryson Worrell, Stevens got a break when Worrell swung at a 3-0 fastball and popped it into short left field for the first out. A subsequent sacrifice fly scored a run for the Pirates, but Stevens accomplished the pregame goal of limiting East Carolina to one run or less in every inning with a third flyout to end the first.
Another big inning by the Longhorns at the plate afforded Stevens even more run support as Texas scored five runs to take a 9-1 lead.
When Stevens is at his best, his sinker and slider produce a lot of groundouts by locating down in the zone. On Sunday, although Stevens didn’t have his best location, East Carolina wasn’t able to capitalize, as Stevens was just good enough working up and successfully mixed in some changeups, especially against the good left-handed hitters in the Pirates’ lineup.
After allowing the run in the first inning, Stevens worked around an error by Melendez in the second and a walk and a single in the third. East Carolina put the first two runners on in the fifth inning with a full-count walk and a single, but Stevens was able to get Lane Hoover, the best hitter for the Pirates, to ground into a 4-6-3 double play and then retired Worrell on a ground ball to Melendez on a full-count pitch. East Carolina threatened again in the sixth with a two-out single and a walk, but once again Stevens was able to rise to the occasion and retire the side with a weak popout to third base.
Stevens departed the game after throwing 101 pitches over 6.0 innings and allowing one run on five hits with five strikeouts and three walks, accomplishing exactly what he intended when he returned to Texas — helping the Longhorns get back to Omaha. With some assistance from right-hander Travis Sthele and Jared Southard, that’s exactly what happened as the two relievers shut down East Carolina after the final three innings, leaving the purple and gold faithful to go gentle into what was not a good night for the Pirates.
“I thought Tristan poured his heart out on the mound as well as the entire team, but it was a big-time outing by Tristan and offensively we gave him a great cushion early,” Pierce said.
And so despite all the low points in a season that started with so much promise — the No. 1 ranking, the 11-game win streak to start the year — the OmaHorns are heading back to college baseball’s promised land.
“This team is is so built for anything that’s thrown at us. We’ve known it since the start of the season with all the adversity that we faced,” Stevens said. “So honestly, we handled it exactly how we would handle it — just calm, relaxed, do what we needed to do, turn the switch back on when we needed to go back out there and keep putting that pressure on and that’s what we did.”