OMAHA, Neb. — It's the day before an elimination game against Vanderbilt and the topic at hand is football.
Texas' senior pitcher Nathan Thornhill, who gets the ball Friday against the Commodores, maneuvers around on a foam round roller, stretching his legs, busting Ben Johnson's chops for Johnson's err the night before, when he forgot to hit first base on a would-be triple and lost the hit. "Stomp the bag," Thornhill says. Johnson isn't nearby to defend himself, but it wouldn't make a difference, Thornhill maintaining two years of seniority over the sophomore.
"Damn Westwood kids," Thornhill says, a twisted smile on his face.
The conversation then dives into football, because Johnson was a star quarterback at Westwood and Thornhill was a star quarterback at Cedar Park, both in the Austin area. Someone else pipes in. They, too, played quarterback. Tres Barrera does not pipe in, but it is injected into the discussion that he was a good QB at Eagle Pass High in South Texas.
Thornhill floats the fact that he has a fifth year of eligibility available in another sport and for a second, the pipe dream to end all pipe dreams hangs in the air — he could help the QB-needy Longhorns this fall!
"Yeah," Thornhill says. "But … baseball."
Oh yeah, baseball. Thornhill's pretty good at it. He'll get a chance with the Phillies, who drafted him in the 13th round this year. Thornhill had a chance to turn pro last fall, going in the 24th round to the Astros, but improved his stock by coming back, compiling an 8-3 record and 1.63 ERA to date. Of course, that's not why Thornhill signed up for another year of classes and Augie 101 in Austin.
"It's fun, it's what you come back for as a senior: We're in Omaha, we have the opportunity to win this game, live another day and then hopefully get to that championship series," Thornhill said. "That's what college baseball's all about. That's what you grow up watching on TV. And I'm excited to be out there."
Now we're full circle, from football to Friday's outing, the next Possible Last Ever Game for Thornhill. He was slapped with the loss in Saturday's CWS versus Irvine, yielding two runs to the Anteaters in 7 1/3 innings. The Longhorns scratched across one run. They only scored one Wednesday as well, but it was enough in a rematch with Irvine. The run support hasn't been there in three CWS games (average of two per) and that's concerning against a Vanderbilt squad that has scored five and six runs in Omaha and in the Super Regional against Stanford twice scored 10 runs or more.
Pitching coach Skip Johnson will have a scouting report on the Commodores ready to share with Thornhill and catcher Barrera, though Thornhill doesn't like to see to much, lest he begin to over-think each adversary.
The right-hander plans to take to the mound with a clear head Friday afternoon (2 p.m., ESPNU) absent the butterflies he pitched with last Saturday.
"It'll be a lot more comfortable for me," Thornhill said. "Throwing the first pitch in the College World Series, I don't know if you can not be nervous there. The second time out there and third time in my career out there, it'll more just baseball from here on out for us."
If Thornhill pitches again as a Longhorn, after Friday, it'll take Texas winning both games against Vanderbilt. Thornhill wouldn't be ready for a Monday CWS Final and his arm still might not be rested for a Tuesday game on four days rest. It might have to be Wednesday, meaning Longhorns would need to win either Monday or Tuesday in the best-of-three Finals. This is looking way ahead.
If Friday is Thornhill's last game, he'll have pitched deeper into the postseason than any UT hurler since 2009. And, come August, if Thornhill is so nostalgic for Austin and so hungry for college competition that he can't stand it, there's the cockeyed fantasy that Charlie Strong finds a spot for him.
This, too, is looking way ahead. Thornhill's content living in the moment, savoring the buildup and envisioning Friday's start — whether it's his last one or not.
"I'm excited we're still here," he said. "We have a great opportunity in front of us."