Texas has the look of champions past

OMAHA, Neb. -- When Texas won big at the College World Series in an era gone by, the Longhorns didn't play an especially exciting brand of baseball.

Coach Augie Garrido's clubs, from 2002 to 2005, won 14 of 18 CWS games and two national titles. The players in the UT dugout weren't more talented than those at Rice or Cal State Fullerton, Florida or league rival Nebraska.

But when opponents walked on the field in Omaha to face Texas, David Maroul turned into David Wright. The Longhorns executed more efficiently than everyone in that setting. They knew it, and opponents knew it.

In a 4-0 Texas win on Friday over Vanderbilt at TD Ameritrade Park, we saw a glimpse of that style.

Texas, behind senior starter Nathan Thornhill, tossed a second straight elimination-game shutout to force a winner-take-all meeting with the Commodores on Saturday in Bracket 1.

"We're just a team that never wants to give up," center fielder Mark Payton said, "a team that's going to battle you for 27 outs."

After a loss to UC Irvine on Day 1 of the College World Series, this Texas looks like the Texas of old. It's grown more comfortable with each win, to the point at which on Friday, the Longhorns spent the final seven innings on cruise control, saving much-needed energy for Saturday, when Vandy turns to No. 1 starter Carson Fulmer.

Despite playing four games, one more than Vanderbilt, Texas appears fresh, in control and loose. It's getting contributions from unexpected spots and capitalizing on mistakes. All of which is the signature of a championship contender under Garrido.

His most successful teams make the game look easy in Omaha, the most difficult place in college baseball to play with such poise.

Texas scored two runs apiece in the first two innings on Friday. It drew a pair of walks in the first, reached base on two hit batsmen and took advantage of a C.J. Hinojosa line drive that clipped umpire Mark Uyl, denying the Commodores a shot to end the threat without damage.

"We helped them a little bit," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "I don't say that in a negative way."

In the second, Zane Gurwitz and Brooks Marlow drilled back-to-back triples off Vandy reliever Brian Miller. Texas pulled off a squeeze bunt. The quick four-run lead stole Vanderbilt's energy.

"From there on," Garrido said, "it was pitching and defense. We executed."

Simple as that.

"When you're playing well, it does look like it's easy," said Garrido, aiming for a sixth national title at age 75. "And that's the way I think they're playing."

Second baseman Marlow said the Longhorns grow more confident in "you lose, you go home" situations.

It works in the opposite way for many teams. So why is Texas different?

"It's about Skip [Johnson] and the other two [assistant] coaches that are so positive with them at all times and never ask them to do more than what they're capable of doing," Garrido said. "It's because we practice in a positive environment, and we play the game in a positive environment. There's not a lot of negativity in it."

Thursday at Texas' practice, after it beat UC Irvine 1-0 in another elimination game, Garrido ran the Longhorns through a base-running drill. Every player rounded the bags, no different than a Little League team.

They all laughed through it, a good-natured jab at Ben Johnson, who slipped and missed first base en route to an apparent triple on Wednesday against Irvine.

He was called out on appeal in a tie game with the season at stake. Garrido turned it into a positive moment.

"That's the attitude," Payton said. "We've got guys in the dugout who'll make you laugh, and then when the game's going on, they're into it, which is great. It's the attitude of this team that's carried us this far. It's going to be the attitude that keeps on carrying us.

"Baseball's a kid's game. You've got to keep it fun."

In this 35th visit to Omaha for Texas, Garrido, who has coached in 15 of these tournaments -- including eight at UT -- understands the ebb and flow of the CWS better than anyone alive.

There's irony in that while Texas tries to maintain a light mood in the dugout, no fan base takes the game more seriously. When a season goes badly at Texas, it's a train wreck. See last year, as the Longhorns failed to make the Big 12 tournament.

But when Texas reverses directions, look out. It's a sight to behold.

"The bigger the game," Garrido said, "the more momentum determines the results."

Texas has momentum again. There's no more intimidating sight for an opponent in college baseball.