The Falcons return to the Disch after splitting a midweek series with the Longhorns in April.
Play in the Austin Regional begins on Friday as the No. 19 Texas Longhorns welcome the Air Force Fighting Falcons back to UFCU Disch-Falk Field following two midweek games in April.
The Falcons proved they can not only hang with the Longhorns, but also blow them out, winning the Tuesday game 14-2 and losing on Wednesday 12-10 after Texas scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
“I think they’re very familiar with the Dish,” Texas head coach David Pierce said Thursday. “They had some success here and these are a bunch of young men that build for adversity and build for combat so they will not be intimidated. Going to have to go out and play a great game and I think our team is well prepared to do that. I like our fight and our mentality against anybody in the country, so very comfortable. I think it’s gonna be an exciting day tomorrow with those two games.”
The dynamics won’t be the same on Friday with the Horns sending ace left-hander Pete Hansen (10-1, 3.01 ERA) to the mound, but the Falcons will counter with a star of their own, ace Paul Skenes (10-2, 2.42 ERA), a 6’6, hard-throwing right-hander with a fastball that can reach 100 miles per hour who profiles as a potential first-round pick in the 2022 MLB Draft.
“We know he’s gonna come out here and compete, he has a great arm, has a lot of wins, we know he’s a power right-hander, but we’re gonna stick with our approach, we have a good lineup and great defense and Pete’s gonna go out there and give us a chance to win,” Texas catcher Silas Ardoin said. “So yeah, all we can do is go out there and compete and give good at bats and hopefully things fall our way.”
Skenes will have to compete with a lineup that leads the Big 12 in batting average (.315) and home runs (114) and now officially features the nation’s best player in first baseman Ivan Melendez, who was named the Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year Thursday. Melendez set the program record with 29 home runs last Sunday in the Big 12 Tournament championship game against Oklahoma State, which leads the country, and also tops the national leaderboard with a .903 slugging percentage and 196 total bases. He sits second nationally in RBI (87), fourth in on-base percentage (.522), and eighth in batting average (.406).
As good as Melendez has been at the plate and defensively at first base, his teammates rave about his quality as a person.
“Just very level headed — despite all of his accomplishments, he never gets too high, never talks about himself, never talks about his success, always talking about our success,” Ardoin said.
In a deep offensive lineup, Melendez received high-level protection this season from breakout right-fielder Murphy Stehly, who is batting .377 and ranks seventh nationally with 92 total hits and 13th with 166 total bases while slugging 17 home runs.
The feel-good story is sixth-year senior Austin Todd, who battled back from another shoulder injury to hit .325 with six home runs, matching his career total entering the season. Todd isn’t swinging for power, though — it’s a natural outgrowth of changes he made at the plate that allowed him to make better contact more consistently, growth that Pierce credited to the work of assistants Troy Tulowitzki and Phillip Allen.
“Austin’s always had real good eye-hand coordination and has a good feel for his hands, but his timing at times was inconsistent,” Pierce said. “I think by spreading him out, keeping his head behind the ball, he’s not trying to generate power, he’s trying to be on time and being on time his power comes out and I think that’s what we’ve noticed with him more than anything.”
How to Watch:
Time: Friday at 1 p.m. Central
TV: Longhorn Network
Radio: 104.9 FM The Horn/1260 AM
Weather: Partly cloudy, 89 degrees, northeast wind three miles per hour