OMAHA — Texas centerfielder Mark Payton moseyed over to skipper Augie Garrido early Friday morning, taking a break from Longhorns' batting practice. The sun was shining, the grass was green, TD Ameritrade Park was shimmering.
"Good to be back, huh?" the senior said.
"Yeah," Garrido responded. "You put the fuel in the tank for us to get here, too."
After all the hand-wringing about a supposedly-crumbling program and the pending exile of Garrido, the NCAA's winningest baseball coach who had yet to win over a new athletics director, it seems like it's been decades since the Longhorns set up their tent in Omaha. Three years have never felt so long.
Texas 2-and-BBQ'd in 2011, the first team out of a stacked CWS field that featured 12 future MLB first-round draft picks. Garrido made his closing remarks following a listless 0-3 loss to North Carolina then told reporters near the side door he never expected to make it to the College World Series with such a young team that featured five freshmen in key roles: Payton, third baseman Erich Weiss, star closer Corey Knebel, relief pitcher Nathan Thornhill and catcher Jacob Felts.
That 2011 team has been a weird blip in the history of Texas' program. Sure, the pitching staff was stacked — Taylor Jungmann, Cole Green and Sam Stafford comprised of a murderers' row of arms — but the team was better the year prior, when those same pitchers were joined on the roster by future Red Sox hurler Brandon Workman, and when opponents had to get through a heart of the order featuring Cameron Rupp, Kevin Keyes and Russell Moldenhauer, who combined to smash 39 homers that season.
Of those five super freshmen in 2011, two remain in key roles. Knebel and Weiss turned pro last summer and Felts has been usurped by powerful frosh Tres Barrera behind the plate. It's Thornhill's and Payton's team, more than it ever was Jungmann's team, or Keyes' team, and for good reason. Each had the chance to kiss the program goodbye last June and take the signing bonuses they were offered after the Astros and Indians drafted them, respectively.
Would you have blamed them?
The Longhorns had missed the postseason two consecutive years, including a last-place finish in the Big 12 in 2013. The promise from 2011 was spoiled. Garrido, 74 going on 75, had lost it.
Of course, we're writing here about Texas' Saturday opener against UC Irvine (2 p.m. on ESPN2), so the Longhorns (43-19) righted the ship, Garrido saved his job, thanks to a clutch outing from Chad Hollingsworth to beat old foe Texas A&M in an elimination game in a regional two weekends ago, and one of the most storied programs in college baseball is back home.
"This is where Texas belongs," said Thornhill, who'll carry an 8-2 record and 1.57 ERA into Saturday's start against the Anteaters (40-23).
This being his fifteenth trip to the College World Series as a coach, Garrido could no doubt find his way to The Drover blindfolded. A chunk of the spotlight will be on him — The Prodigal Son's Return to Omaha — and for good reason. A zen mind with a hypnotizing, relaxing, way of speech, Garrido could wax poetic about his morning bowel movement and come out sounding like Walt Whitman. He commands your attention.
"It's not an immediate rush — it's a soulful feeling," Garrido said of the emotions of being back. "Omaha has been a platform for opportunity. I came here in 1959 as a player and some number of times after that. If it hadn't been for Omaha and what they do here, and how they've kept the College World Series alive, and how it's grown, a lot of us wouldn't be who we are. … I am eternally grateful to Nebraska and Omaha for the opportunities they provide to many of us."
In true Garrido form, he finished that soliloquy with a crack: "And the job security, it helps."
Garrido's Longhorn affiliation doesn't halt native Nebraskans in their adoration. He's an obvious headline this week, especially if Texas gets closer and closer to winning National Title No. 7. He's just one half of the story of Texas' redemption, though, and to, um, cover that other base, we have to quickly go back to June of 2011.
Nathan Thornhill was 19 years young, with curly blonde hair and a baby face that made him look even younger, when he toed the rubber and stared down Florida's 6-foot-3 slugger Brian Johnson, a righty-on-lefty matchup, the advantage to the Gators. This was not ideal time to use Thornhill, a freshman: Bottom of the seventh in the opener of the CWS, with a man on base, against the money part of the best lineup in baseball, but Texas didn't have many options. Down 4-5, the Longhorns had their 3-0 lead zapped as starter Taylor Jungmann unraveled in the early portion of the game, and had already used their best relievers, Hoby Milner, Kendal Carrillo and Andrew McKirahan.
Thornhill stood dumbfounded as Johnson didn't flinch at a first-pitch changeup. The next pitch, a fastball, flew back over Thornhill's head and traveled precisely 408 feet, landing on the tippy-top of the centerfield padding. It was a home run, incorrectly ruled a double. It didn't matter. Florida had scored again and the Longhorns would pack their bags two days later.
"You can look it up on YouTube, probably," Thornhill said Friday after recounting the sequence.
Payton, for his part, never had such a cringe-worthy moment. For four years now the 5-foot-9 outfielder has been boringly consistent: batting averages of .263, .322, .393 and .326 dot his player page. The Yankees selected him in the seventh round of the draft this season, about an hour after Payton gave the Longhorns a 2-0 lead in the opening game of their Super Regional versus Houston, pulling a first-inning homer over the right-field wall.
For 101 consecutive games now, Payton has safely reached base. It'll be news when he doesn't.
"Him and Nate mean everything to their teammates," Garrido said of his two senior stars. "They've referred to how unselfish those two players were to come back and help the team get to Omaha. That was the goal, to go from last to Omaha. And Mark and Nate gave up a lot. Every player on the team recognizes that and respects that."
Says Payton, who arrived on campus in the fall of 2010 interview-ready and hasn't ever strayed from the company line: "We want to come out of here with a ring. It feels good to be back and get this program back on the national stage where it needed to be. … This team knows we're not done yet. That's our motivation – just play as long as you can."