April 1st---TCU routes UT-Arlington 12-6. At the time, it was a much needed boost to make up for the series loss to Oklahoma State the weekend prior, but what it became was much greater. I'm drilling the stat---but TCU's 32-4 since and the upward trajectory to greatness is still going. Despite a monster comeback in the second and a return to Omaha, it won't be enough for the 2014 team to just be there, if they really want to fulfill their prophecy, they're going to have to win it.
World Cup Cycles
What's the deal with TCU being at its best during World Cup years? Four years ago, TCU beat the Texas Longhorns on their home turf to advance to their first College World Series in school history. Matt Purke dominated the first game, Texas tore through the Frogs in the second game, before the Frogs closed it out on Sunday to advance to Omaha for the first time in school history.
TCU's 2010 College World Series run had the best stories of that year, and as an Omaha tradition the locals temporarily "adopted" the Horned Frogs because they were the underdog. TCU started off strong, crushing Florida State, before losing to UCLA for the first time. They battled back and pulled off what's arguably the greatest comeback in CWS history in an elimination game in a rematch against Florida State. Down 7-5 with 2 outs in the 8th inning, Matt Curry came to the plate. Curry was facing a 2-2 count but patiently shook off a very outside payoff pitch to bring the count full. The next pitch had a very different result. Curry sent the ball to dead-away centerfield, and for a brief second it looked as if FSU's center fielder actually had a play on the ball---but it was nowhere close---and the grand-slam put TCU up 9-7. The cheers and celebrations at the Aardvark could've been heard all the way at the RaceTrack that sits at the exit of Berry and I-35.
After escaping elimination, TCU then had to play a really great UCLA team, highlighted by current MLB pros Trevor Bauer and Garret Cole. The Frogs got by Cole, but were unable to get by the unhittable Bauer and his nasty-ass hat, and that was all she wrote as TCU had nearly fulfilled the Cinderella prophecy; they were just a game shy of reaching the CWS Finals. It should also be of note that on that same day, the USA lost to Ghana in their own elimination game. It was a very sad day in the Marsh Weber sports world.
But it's not 2010 anymore. For one, despite TCU's lowly first half, they clawed their way back to earn their first National seed in school history. Primed as one of the Top-8 teams in the tournament, the Frogs did what they were supposed to do---earn a CWS birth. Had TCU not made it, it would've been an upset. I'm sure everyone's aware of this, but TCU's not in the Mountain West anymore. They're in the Big 12 and thus they're no longer the "underdog"; they're no longer Cinderella. More or less by default, playing in the Big 12, the Frogs are now the wolf they used to dream about slaying.
Living in a Post BBCOR World and The Comeback
We've talked about how this pitching staff, top to bottom, is superior to the 2010 class and how the statistical discrepancy in hitting can be heavily attributed to the BBCOR bats that were introduced in 2011. There's very little doubt this is the better team. Baseball writers were pretty much unanimous in their praise for TCU; that this team from Fort Worth, a team defined by pitching, was one of the most dangerous team in the tournament. While Omaha is thrilling and an undeniable indication of where this baseball team is, and is headed for the future---anything less than making the finals will be a disappointment. And arguably so is anything short of winning a National Title. That may sound vinegary, but TCU's still the hottest team in the country and there's no reason for them to not be playing for the National Championship.
So far, they've passed every gut-check. The 22-inning marathon win in the Regional game against Sam Houston was the first test, and then burying them the next night was the second test. The next step was getting past Aaron Brown and a very tough Pepperdine team. In the first game, newly drafted Royal Brandon Finnegan looked as good as he had all season. Finny began to pick up some heavy steam in the top of the 4th striking out 2 of 3 Pepperdine hitters---most notably Aaron Barnett, a .373 hitter who only strikes out 1 out of every 19 at-bats. Finny continued to be dirty, striking out the side in the top of 5th to give him 7 on the day. His only slip was the homerun to Chris Fornaci in the 7th.
The Waves and Brown bit back though and evened the series at 1-1. It's as close as un-hyperbolic as a hyperbole can be, but Brown single handedly won the second game. His pitching, fielding and hitting were all money in game two. The highlight came from centerfield as Brown threw a frozen rope from center to deny Jerrick Suiter and TCU the tying run---despite Suiter's Pete Rose-esque leap.
Throughout most of the third game, TCU look buried and it looked as if Brown and the Waves were going to steal TCU's thunder and ride a wave (sorry had to) straight to Omaha. Hutton Moyer played as good of defense as anyone in the tournament thus far, showing incredible range that kept denying the Frogs any sort of breathing room. The Waves' catcher, Aaron Barnett, was also outstanding in the series and tested the aggressive TCU base runners more than any other catcher had all season.
Pepperdine held the momentum throughout most of the third game, but once they started to make more pitching changes, the momentum went to the Frogs. That shift became noticeable when lead-off hitter Cody Jones hit a shot to left field---and though it was caught, it looked as if TCU had the Waves up against the ropes.
Pepperdine bit right back and sucked the air right out of Lupton in the bottom of the 8th. Aaron Brown once again put his team in a winning position and the Waves took a 5-4 lead going into the 9th. The Frogs put on two runners early, thanks to Jerrick Suiter busting his ass and making it safe to first on an infield single. After a huge misread on a ball earlier in the first that cost the Frogs a run, Dylan Fitzgerald got a little revenge. After botching two bunts, Fitz knocked a huge double to right that scored Crain to tie the game at 5. Then came the ballsiest moment of TCU’s season---Kyle Bacak, one of the finer bunters in all of college baseball, executed a perfect 1-0 suicide squeeze to give TCU the go-ahead run to make it 6-5 in favor of the Horned Frogs. Going into the bottom of the 9th there was no one better to handle the pressure and situation than Riley "Wild Thing" Ferrell---and there was no better way for TCU to punch their ticket to Omaha than on a heater/strikeout from Wild Thing.
The Frogs defended their territory these past two weeks like the Night's Watch against Mance Rayder Sunday night…but Omaha is a different story. However, if TCU can come back from a game like that, the ceiling for Omaha is very, very high.
"Being There" Won't Be Enough This Time
The road isn't easy though. TCU faces conference rival Texas Tech in its first game on Sunday. The Raiders and Frogs split their series this year at two games apiece. If the Frogs get out of that first game, they'll face an even bigger obstacle against either Ole Miss or Virginia, two of the Nation's most consistent teams. (Virginia is also the only other National seed other than to TCU to make CWS...the lowest ever). Not to say Tech is an inferior squad, but the Horned Frogs know what they’re getting into with Tech---but UVA/Ole Miss? Not so much. And credit the Big 12 too---a conference that had no representatives in the CWS last year, but has 3 teams, all from Texas, in Omaha this year. The Big 12 was only one team shy of having the most teams represented since the ACC sent four teams to Omaha in 2006. Also as a sidenote; Texas, TCU, and Texas Tech finished 9th, 8th, and 7th in the conference last year respectively. Not a bad turnaround.
If TCU were to make it to the finals it wouldn't be any easier, as Vanderbilt, UC-Irvine, and Louisville are all as good---if not better than any team the Frogs have seen all year. But even more enticing is the potential rematch versus a surging Texas Longhorns squad---a team that's in far better shape than they were when TCU swept them mid-April.
Right now, the ticket to Omaha is just another step for the Horned Frogs. If they want to fulfill the prophecy they set for themselves in early April, they're going have to have to win it all. They certainly have the pitching, whether or not the offense will put together everything at the right time is another question. TCU's "Oh my God...we're here" moment is gone---it's time to trade in a participant ribbon for a Trophy.