(Part 1 of an 8-part series previewing the College World Series)
Following a two-year hiatus, the Texas Longhorns are back in familiar territory. Opening the College World Series on Saturday at 2 p.m., the Longhorns (43-19) collide with California Irvine.
Texas holds the all-time CWS record for appearances (35 counting this season) and wins (82). This marks the Longhorns' 15th trip to Omaha under coach Augie Garrido. The winningest coach in college baseball history, Garrido owns 1,917 career victories, highlighted by national championships in 1979, 1984, 1995, 2002 and 2005.
In typical fashion, the program which has produced the likes of Roger Clemens, Burt Hooton, Huston Street and Greg Swindell, boasts a stout pitching staff.
Texas ranks sixth in the nation with a 2.32 team earned run average. Clamping down during NCAA Tournament play, the Longhorns sport a 1.15 ERA while holding the opposition to a .210 batting average.
Particularly tough when playing with the lead, the Longhorns are 21-2 when scoring in the first inning.
Senior righthander Nathan Thornhill (8-2, 1.57) has a 0.91 ERA over his last five starts, allowing only three runs over 29 1/3 innings.
Junior righthander Parker French (6-5, 2.45) has given up only two runs in 12 2/3 innings in two postseason starts.
Sophomore righthander John Curtiss (2-0, 2.06, 9 saves) holds down the end of a reliable bullpen.
As a team, the Longhorns are batting .268 with an NCAA-leading 96 sacrifice bunts.
Senior center fielder Mark Payton has reached base safely in 101 consecutive games, a Big 12 Conference record. Payton leads the Big 12 in on base percentage (.476) and walks (55) while also pacing the Longhorns in slugging (.464), total bases (104), doubles (15) and RBI (38). He also ranks among the team leaders with a .326 batting average, five triples and 19 stolen bases in 20 attempts.
Sophomore left fielder Ben Johnson (.271, 6 HRs, 32 RBI) and freshman catcher Tres Barrera (.275-5-35) have accounted for 11 of the team's 21 home runs. Besides leading the way in longballs, Johnson has scored a team-high 45 runs and has pilfered 21 bases without being caught.
Senior designated hitter Madison Carter (.347-1-11 in 28 starts) and sophomore shortstop C.J. Hinojosa (.300-1-33) have been swinging hot bats of late.
Penciled into the starting lineup for the past 14 games, Carter has responded with a .385 batting average (20-of-52), a home run, five doubles, six RBI and 14 runs scored.
Hinojosa, who leads the team with 16 sac bunts, is hitting .476 (10-of-21) with six RBI in NCAA Tournament play.
Texas won three of four games in the Houston Regional, defeating Texas A&M 4-1 in the finals, before sweeping Houston 4-2 and 4-0 in the Austin Super Regional.