TCU has long been a pitching school. But the 2016 season saw the Frogs win a different way, as the offense dominated while the pitching was inconsistent. After Coach Jim Schlossnagle laid into his staff at the conclusion of the Texas Tech series, a three game set that saw the Frogs drop two games to fall out of contention for the conference crown, Schloss said:
"Horrible, just horrible," he said. "A total lack of respect for the pitching tradition in this program by our pitching staff. Everything we are about is pitching and throwing strikes, and this pitching staff refuses to commit to it."
It took awhile, but it seems the message was sent and received.
TCU dominated in all facets of the game in hosting their sixth regional in the last eighth season, as they swept through Fort Worth, allowing only four runs in three games and outscoring Oral Roberts, Gonzaga, and Arizona State 19-4 in the process. Sunday's finale against the Sun Devils was the epitome of what you want this team to look like on the field - Brian Howard's exemplary performance was backed up by a balanced attack that used a combination of chipping away and big hits to knock ASU out of the tournament and secure a date with the Aggies in the Supers next weekend.
Arizona State fought their way through the loser's bracket after dropping the Friday afternoon game to Gonzaga. Along the way, Jordan Aboites delivered a complete game, 117 pitch, one-run performance, and Zach Dixon followed that up with an eight inning, 140 pitch, three-run outing to win two straight elimination games. The Sun Devils turned to closer Eder Erives, who followed suit, delivering a seven inning, four run effort that kept ASU in the game all the way up until he left the mound. Even the early three runs that TCU scored on him in the second inning required some help from the baseball Gods. Watson walked to lead off that second inning and moved to third on a double from Steinhagen. After a Merrill groundout, Wanhanen walked to load the bases and Wade scored Watson on an RBI fly out.
Then things got a little weird.
Warner popped up to right field, and even though the ball was being tracked by both the second baseman and the right fielder, no one could get to it. They almost ran into each other as the ball fell in to score another run. Up next, Evan Skoug popped one up in the infield that just made it over the pitcher's outstretched glove and fell out of reach of the second baseman to make it 3-0.
Meanwhile, Howard had the kind of performance you want from your veteran ace, as he went eight full innings - though he had to beg to go back out on the mound for the last one - using a combination of pinpoint accuracy on his fastball and good command of the off-speed stuff to keep the ASU hitters off-balance and off the base paths. He allowed only one run on four hits, striking out nine and not issuing a single free pass. On the other side, the Frogs played solid defense behind him and used timely hitting to create separation - TCU scored eight runs despite leaving 12 on base. The seven walks issued by Arizona State pitchers certainly helped, as did a handful of big hits with runners on base.
The score stayed locked at 3-1 for most of the night until a pair of doubles from Baker and Watson made it 4-1 in the seventh. Then, the Frogs broke things open in the eighth with four runs to effectively put the game out of reach for ASU. Wade, Warner and Barzilli all drove in runs in the eighth, but the highlight was a two run homer from Warner. It was his second two-run homer of the weekend, and together they earned him the honor of Fort Worth Regional MVP. The Frogs got a great night from lead-off hitter Austen Wade, who had two hits, two walks, and two RBIs on the night. Dane Steinhagen's three-hit effort from the seven hole was also huge, and Warner, Skoug, and Baker all had multi-hit games in the heart of the order. Every Frog found a way on base, including Michael Landestoy, who made the most of his one at-bat as a defensive replacement by smacking a single up the middle.
While the offense was excellent and fun to watch, it was the action on the mound that took TCU to the next stage. Howard retired 15 straight from the fourth through the eighth innings, and though Brian Trieglaff ended the streak by issuing a walk to open play in the ninth, he erased the runner with a double play and got an easy ground out to end the game a batter later.
For their efforts, TCU's Cam Warner, Ryan Merrill, Elliot Barzilli, Austen Wade, and Luken Baker were all named to the all-tournament team, as was pitcher Brian Howard.
Next up, the Frogs will travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M in a rematch of last year's epic Super Regional, though this time it will be the Aggies who have home-field advantage. It will also be SEC Player of the Year Boomer White's first time taking on his former team, as he was not eligible to play last season after transferring from TCU. While the storylines run deep, the close ties and revenge story lines don't mean near as much as the trip to Omaha that is at stake for these two teams. For TCU, it's the chance to go back to the College World Series for a third straight year, while the Aggies hope to make it to the Championship round for the first time since 2011. I have a feeling we are in for another amazing series between these two Texas baseball powers.