OMAHA, Neb. — With the wind blowing in at 35 mph at cavernous TD Ameritrade Park, UC Irvine’s Taylor Sparks hit the longest ball all day. It barely reached the warning track.
But with Texas’ outfield playing extremely shallow Saturday, his drive to left-center for his nation-leading ninth triple was more than enough to get the Anteaters’ offense going in a 3-1 victory over Texas in the opening game of the College World Series.
“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.”
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, a 5-3 winner over Louisville in the night game. The Longhorns (43-20) play Louisville.
The Anteaters had been shut out for seven innings before they broke through against Texas starter Nathan 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.
Texas coach Augie Garrido said he didn’t regret sending Thornhill out for the eighth after watching the Phillies’ 13th-round draft pick pitch a 1-2-3 seventh.
“I wouldn’t say I was tired,” Thornhill said. “The first hitter turned on fastball inside, and the next guy (Sparks) is their best hitter and he hit a cutter that was down. He sat on it. Great hit.”
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.
“Definitely my adrenaline was pumping, because I haven’t been in a situation like that late in a game in a long time,” Brock said. “That got the juices flowing.”
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.”
Texas is making its record 35th CWS appearance, with the 75-year-old 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.
UC Irvine barely made the tournament after losing eight of nine to end the regular season. But the Anteaters, in the CWS for the second time, are not now and in position to make a run at giving the 74-year-old Gillespie his second national title. He won his first in 1998 at Southern California.