We are nearing the end of an era in Fort Worth as the Frogs prepare to play their last conference series of the season. TCU returned the most veteran of teams in 2017, and will have significant turnover in 2018 because of it. Senior starters Brian Howard, Mitchell Traver, Elliott Barzilli, Nolan Brown, and Cam Warner will all graduate at the conclusion of the season - whenever it is - while juniors Evan Skoug and Austen Wade are likely to hear their names called early enough in the draft to make a senior season return too tempting to pass up. But before these players start looking ahead, there is unfinished business to tend to, and it starts tonight in Norman.
TCU will send the same three men to the mound this weekend that they did last, and in the same order. Nick Lodolo gets the start this evening, and with it, a chance to lock up at least a share of the regular season title. The Frogs are two games up on Texas Tech with each team having three left to play - the Red Raiders get Kansas at home next week - so a win clinches a share while a series wins gives the championship to TCU: disaster in Lubbock he damned. The freshman phenom turned in his best performance of the season two weeks ago in Lubbock, stifling the best offense in the Big 12 in a stellar start. He was good enough against Texas a week ago - he left with a lead despite so wildness late - but will be called upon to be great once again tonight. Lodolo squares off against Jake Irvin, 6-0 with a 2.44 ERA in nine starts this season, who's allowed 45 hits in 48 innings but his 58 strikeouts have kept opponents in check.
On Saturday, Brian Howard will see Devon Perez in a more favorable matchup for TCU; Perez is 5-2 in six starts with a 3.54 ERA and has split time between starting and the pen this season. He leads the team with 48.1 innings pitched, but allows a hit per, though he does have 62 Ks against a scant eight free passes issued.
Mitchell Traver answered the call in a big way Sunday afternoon, holding the Horns at bat enough to allow the Frogs to rally late for the sweep. He put together his best effort of the season, and looks to be rounding into form at the right time. On Sunday, he could have an opportunity to be the man on the mound as the Frogs look to clinch the series and the title, and fans are far more comfortable with that potential than they were just a week ago. His opponent will be Kyle Tyler, who owns the odd distinction of having just one decision in seven starts, and it was a loss. He has a respectable 3.79 ERA in 38 innings, having allowed 34 hits. His strikeout to walk ratio - 28 to 24 - isn't great, and a patient TCU team could certainly take advantage of that.
Offensively, the Frogs have been consistently inconsistent, sparking for 11 runs on Friday and 8 on Saturday against Texas, and then being hardly able to get the ball out of the infield Sunday (albeit against great pitching) until a slough of walks opened the door just enough. Evan Skoug has certainly caught fire though; with three home runs last week he owns the team lead at 12, a number no individual has hit for Jim Schlossnagle since 2010. Skoug is seeing the ball in a special way, not just hitting it out of the park but shooting it in the gaps and drawing walks at an impressive rate. His tied things up twice for TCU against Texas: once, with a solo shot in the tenth Friday night and again Sunday with a timely double in the eighth. Skoug has his average up to .282, trailing only Cam Warner (.310), Luken Baker (.316), and Austen Wade (.351) for the team lead. Baker, who's sprint away from the dog pile after his game winning double Sunday is one of my favorite snapshots of the season, has responded to the protection of Skoug behind him by smoking line drives to all parts of the field and drawing more walks than most power hitters can dream of. He has reached safely in 28 games, ahead of Skoug's 26 game streak and trailing only Wade's 33 on the team. Wade, who sat Sunday after a hard slide into the wall Saturday afternoon, looks poised to return to the lineup for all three games this weekend.
For Oklahoma, Renae Martinez and Steele Walker (seriously?!) steer the ship with 12 doubles a piece and a combined 13 home runs. As a team, the Sooners hit .274, slug .411, and hit 43 home runs. They average 5.5 runs per game and profile similarly to the Longhorns overall. In case you were wondering, former Texas A&M QB - and soon to be Baker Mayfield heir apparent - Kyler Murray, has six hits in 49 at bats with 20 strikeouts. You know, just for the sake of information.
This series could very well come down to the bullpens, an area in which TCU has struggled down the stretch. The relievers surrendered a big lead Friday night, forcing the Frogs to have to win it in extras and blew the shutout Saturday, though on Sunday old reliable Sean Wymer was nails once again. Outside of a Wymer and freshman Cal Coughlin, the rest of the young pen has been up and down to say the least, showing flashes of brilliance followed by an inability to throw strikes. Closer Durbin Feltman continues to slump, blowing the save Friday in his only appearance of the weekend.
The Sooners have four guys they predominantly turn to out of the pen, Connor Berry, JB Olson, Austin Kerns, and Braidyn Fink (yes, that is how he spells Braidyn). Berry and Olson sport sub-one ERAs, while the rest of the relievers are at 5.00 or above. If the Frogs can get to the bullpen early and often, they could do some late damage.
OU is 21-5 at home, while the Frogs are a sub-optimal 10-7 on the road. But, TCU plays it's best baseball when the stakes are highest as the calendar turns to May and June, and they know the importance of sewing up the regular season title and all but securing the national seed that goes with it. Don't expect it to be easy - the #24 Sooners are just 3.5 games out of the lead themselves, and have plenty to play for as well. It should be a good series, but the Frogs are the more talented team, and should prevail. Then again, the way this team has been up and down all year, there's certainly no guarantee.
First pitch Friday is scheduled for 6:30pm, with Saturday set for 2:00pm and Sunday a 1:00pm start. The first two games can be seen on FSOK while Sunday's broadcast will be on FCS-Central. You can listen to the games on 88.7 KTCU or watch on Fox Sports Go.