NCAA BASEBALL: Next up for sizzling Notre Dame? Back to the Big 12 as 2022 CWS starts
And then there were eight.
College baseball nears its summit this week with the start of the annual College World Series from Charles Schwab Field in Omaha. There are some familiar names there, some high seeds there, some baseball royalty there.
And there’s also Notre Dame.
Watch College World Series live:How to watch Notre Dame in CWS
It's been 20 years since the Irish visited the city on the banks of the Missouri River, but they might be the one team that nobody wants to see in the double-elimination bracket. The eight participating teams are split into two, four-team pods. Notre Dame is in one with Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Think of it as the Big 12 Invitational, with Notre Dame (40-15) as the party crasher. With the party held in Omaha instead of Dallas.
Here are five facts about the No. 9 seed Longhorns (47-20) heading into Friday’s CWS opener (7 p.m. EST, ESPN).
►Omaha has long been Austin North
Not really, but nobody would blame the Longhorns for establishing permanent residency in the Cornhusker state. Getting to the College World Series at least once in your collegiate career if you play at Texas is sort of a birthright. Like playing for a national championship in football once was at Notre Dame (sorry, still too soon).
When Texas hammered host East Carolina in a decisive super-regional game Sunday, it marked the 38th time in school history that the Longhorns have reached Omaha. That’s the most in Division I baseball history. Think about that. Texas has been to college baseball’s promised land 38 times. Notre Dame has been there … three.
The calendar turns to June, the Longhorns leave for Omaha. That’s how it’s long gone for a program that seeks a seventh national championship. Texas first visited the city in 1949. That’s also when it won its first natty. The Longhorns also were there last year, losing to eventual national champion (and eventual Southeastern Conference colleague) Mississippi State.
Texas last won it all in 2005. Dating back to 2011, the Longhorns have lost their first game in each of their last four appearances. They haven’t won their opener since 2009. Texas finished runner up to LSU that June.
Notre Dame and Texas are two of the most iconic brands in college athletics, but relative strangers in baseball. Friday marks only the seventh time the teams meet. The first was in 1957 in, naturally, Omaha. Notre Dame won a third-round CWS game that year.
Is 65 years too long of a gap for CWS history to repeat itself?
►Good luck dealing with first baseman Ivan Melendez
It’s tucked there on the second page of the Texas baseball notes – a full page ad (really) touting Melendez, a native of El Paso and known as “The Hispanic Titanic.”
Melendez has bruised baseballs and opposing pitching all season. Heading into CWS play, he leads all Division I players in home runs (32), RBI (94), slugging percentage (.888) and total bases (213). He’s also hitting a ridiculous .395. The Big 12 player of the year is the first Division I player to hit at least 30 home runs in a season since former Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant belted 31 in 2013 at San Diego.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound redshirt junior led the Big 12 in batting average, home runs, RBI, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Melendez is the first Longhorn since 2018 (Kody Clemens) named a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award (basically, college baseball’s Heisman Trophy). He’s the fourth Texas player to earn national player of the year honors by College Baseball. The other three? Greg Swindell (1986), Scott Bryant (1989) and Brooks Kieschnick (1993).
Can anyone retire the No. 3 hitter in the lineup? Many have tried. Few have succeeded.
►Along comes another Big 12 team that rakes
Stop (no, don’t) if you’ve read this postseason storyline before for Notre Dame. Here's a Big 12 opponent that likes to hit. A lot. Notre Dame has been down this road earlier with Texas Tech, which it twice beat over the course of three days in regional play. Included in that was a game where the Red Raiders struck out 19 times.
In. One. Game.
Texas boasts similarly live bats as their conference colleagues. There are hitters up and down the everyday eight. Texas enters CWS play with a program record 128 home runs after hitting only 68 last year. Whoa. Six Longhorns had hit streaks of at least 10 games this season, led by Melendez’s 21. Ten have had runs of reaching base at least 11 straight games, again led by Melendez at 31 in a row.
Heading into super regionals, Texas had outscored opponents 509-272 this season. That includes 163-53 in the fourth and fifth innings. How have the Longhorns won 16 of 20? Look at the bats. They’re probably still smoking.
►Graduate transfers have been good
Really good. Difference-making good. A year ago in his final season, former St. John’s outfielder Mike Artico made the most of a quick stay in Austin. He became the first player in Big 12 history to finish a season with at least 10 home runs and 40 stolen bases.
This season, it’s third baseman Skyler Messinger who has discovered the grad transfer secret sauce. Sixteen games into his UT career, Messinger was hitting .192. Heading to Omaha, Messinger is hitting .372 with 11 home runs, 59 RBI and 139 total bases in 65 games, 63 starts. He has 90 hits and has scored 46 runs. In four previous seasons at Kansas, Messinger hit a total of six home runs.
He’s also done it with the glove. Messinger has made only four errors, a big reason why he earned second team all-league honors. He also was the Austin regional most valuable player after hitting .778 with a double, four RBI and five runs scored.
That lineup’s a lot more than just Melendez.
►Texas responds in postseason
Backed into a corner last weekend in Greenville, North Carolina, Texas answered adversity the only way it could to reach Omaha – with two road wins.
The Longhorns weren’t only down, they were about out after losing the super-regional opener to East Carolina. Playing in Greenville was foreign territory for a program that has had to go on the road only three times for supers since 2005.
Those Pirates fans in the Clark-LeClair Stadium stands likely were plotting travel plans for Omaha on Saturday. In a must-get game, Texas trailed 7-2 in the top of the seventh, 7-4 in the bottom of the eighth. The Longhorns then rallied to tie it eight, then won in the bottom of the ninth (they were the home team in Game 2) on a Dylan Campbell walk-off single with the bases loaded.
While Notre Dame was celebrating its super-regional success in Knoxville, Texas was waiting out a weather delay that stretched nearly five hours. Luckily for the Longhorns, they’d done most of their work early.
Texas jumped to a 9-1 lead after two innings and cruised to an 11-1 Omaha-clinching win. After losing the opener 13-7, Texas outscored East Carolina the next two games by a combined 20-9.
We didn’t see Texas baseball in that first game in Greenville. We sure saw it the last two.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.