Deja vu. The feeling that you’ve been there before. If you’re anything like me, you’re having a little of that these days, watching TCU Baseball wilt down the stretch underneath the burden of high expectations, emotional exhaustion, and a wrath of devastating injuries. The last two weeks or so have me harkening back - and not in a good way - to 2015, when a similar fate befell TCU Football. The year before, the Frogs had memorably been robbed of a shot to win it all when Wisconsin rolled over and died against Ohio State, allowing the Buckeyes to leap frog (sorry, not sorry) TCU into the playoffs. But, while the fans were rightfully pissed, there was always the carrot of next year: the Frogs returned just about everybody on offense from the team that smoked Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl and looked primed for a big campaign once again.
But... we all know how that went. Injuries to Kolby Listenbee, Josh Doctson, Trevone Boykin, and a slough of others - 22 to be exact - wreaked havoc on our hopes and dreams and torpedoed any realistic shot of the final four, though it did end up in one of the most exciting comebacks in College Football history.
Well, here we sit, less than two years later, in an all too familiar situation. The streak of three straight College World Series appearances seems destined to end for TCU, as the preseason #1 team in the country has fallen on hard times as of late, ‘shared’ Big 12 regular season title be damned (we all know how much those mean when you’ve lost the H2H battle, after all). The Frogs, in just the last few weeks, have lost their most experienced reliever, their best starting pitcher, their top all around offensive weapon, and the scariest power bat in college baseball. Ryan Burnett is off the team. Jared Janczak is coming along slowly from shoulder pain and could be back but might not. Austen Wade was supposed to start Friday night against OU, but instead never made an appearance in the series. Luken Baker is... well, we will (maybe) know more in the coming days, but anyone who saw the injury believes he’s out for much of, if not all of, the remainder of the season. Playing in the toughest baseball conference in the country might be enough to earn them a National Seed, and thus home field through the Regionals and Super Regionals, but it’s hard to believe that will be enough to carry them back to the promised land.
The bullpen is struggling:
Jim Schlossnagle added a ton of talented arms to the bullpen this summer, going all-in on pitching in recruiting and signing just a single position player that has seen any playing time so far this season - backup catcher Zach Humphreys. While there is no doubt that the ability is there for most, if not all, of these young, hard throwing pitchers, the freshmen in them has come to burn late in the season, as they have struggled to throw strikes and get out of innings down the stretch. Guys like Charles King, Jake Eissler, and Trey Morris - all true freshmen - have fallen in and out of favor as Schloss and Saarloos look for the right buttons to push in the late innings. More experienced guys like Austin Boyles, Dalton Horton, and Dalton Brown have been equally inconsistent, and just as flexible in the favor of their coach. Only Sean Wymer and Cal Coughlin seem to be in the circle of trust lately, and Wymer was the one to surrender the game winning hits Sunday afternoon.
Back end backfiring:
And that brings us to the Durbin Feltman question.
Those of us that lived through the Riley Ferrell years have seen this before; the young, hard throwing, lightning fastball, emotional closer going haywire for a bit - Ferrell had a period of intense struggle, but Schlossnagle allowed him to work his way through it and he came around. Feltman is in it now; after recording his first 14 saves without a blip, he’s had mostly blips since blowing the first one against West Virginia. The question must be asked: is it time to make a change? Fans would likely answer with a resounding yes, but I doubt that’s the direction the coach will go. After all, if you move Wymer or Coughlin to the closer role, what do you do for the rest of the middle innings?
Defenseless on defense:
The bullpen has certainly been the most obvious of the issues plaguing your Big 12 co-Champs this season, but it’s not the only one. Defense, generally the other hallmark of a Jim Schlossnagle team, has been sloppy all year, especially in the infield. While Elliott Barzilli has made some Gold Glove worthy plays at third, he’s had some inexplicable ‘what the hell’ moments too, leading to five errors. Ryan Merrill is the worst offender of the unit with nine, while Cam Warner has four and Baker three, in limited starts. Even Evan Skoug, normally solid behind the plate, has struggled - leading to a career high eight. With three games, the Big 12 tournament, and the NCAA’s left to play, the 2017 team has 46 total errors, compared to 55 a season ago and 65 in 2015. They could still finish below either of those units, but they have seemed to come at the most inopportune times this year: see Saturday’s disaster in the outfield that allowed the Sooners to score two late.
Starters can’t finish:
With Jared Janczak out of the rotation, TCU has needed veterans Brian Howard and Mitchell Traver to be at their best, and that just hasn’t happened consistently. Both seniors have had moments of brilliance - the two were excellent against Texas - couple with control issues that have led to big innings by opponents - Traver was taken deep twice on his way to allowing six runs in just 2.1 innings yesterday and Howard was dinged for four earned in 6.1 frames Saturday. With a Big 12 title on the line, you would expect one or both to give a post-season worthy performance, but neither was able to hold the Sooners below their season average for runs. Nick Lodolo has looked at times like the wunderkind he was billed at, while also looking like a freshmen. He has the goods, makes guys miss a ton, and seems destined to be great - but expecting him to arrive there in year one is probably too much to ask.
All Hail Evan Skoug:
The offense, while still putting up big numbers, isn’t the same without Wade and Baker. Poor Evan Skoug has literally put this team on his back since Friday night, but without the protection of his big slugger, the results are mixed. Skoug went 6-12 in three games over the weekend, including a pair of doubles and a duo of home runs - he has 14 total on the year. He has his average up near .300 as the Frogs enter the final series of the regular season, and is doing everything he can in the box and behind the plate to will his team to victory. The team as a whole scored 26 runs over the weekend, which should be more than enough to win two games, but still left 24 runners on base over the course of the three game set. While that is all well and good, until Schloss can get some consistent production out of the bottom of the lineup, it’s going to be too easy to pitch around Skoug and Cam Warner and keep the talented offense on the ropes once the post-season begins. And, as we have learned, there is no such things as too many runs before the first call to the pen.
Time to change the narrative?:
Let’s play a dangerous game and make some assumptions for the last few weeks of the season. Let’s say that Luken Baker is out for the year (sad!). Let’s also surmise that neither Austen Wade or Jared Janczak will make a meaningful appearance before the Big 12 tournament. TCU currently sits within the top eight in the polls and #6 in RPI, and is in a good position to retain a National Seed. The Frogs have been well, terrible, on the road this season, so maintaining home field through the Regionals and Supers could make or break any hopes of returning to Omaha.
The latest projections from Baseball America have the Frogs hosting Washington, Bryant, and God help us A&M, and it’s hard to imagine that not coming down once again to TCU and the Aggies - and an incredibly vulnerable TCU at that. Frankly, there’s not a team in the country (not named Oregon State) I want to see less in the Regional round than Texas A&M, especially this year.
To sew up that top eight seed, the Frogs probably need to make it to the weekend of the Big 12 tournament, where they will likely start as the number two seed. As things currently stand, that would mean a first round matchup with Texas, a team they swept on their home field, but needed extra innings twice to do so. Oklahoma and Kansas would be the other two teams in their side of the bracket, as the Frogs would fortuitously avoid West Virginia. That of course, can all change, As West Virginia plays Texas in Austin and Baylor squares off with Kansas State, just one game behind OU in the standings.
Let’s not forget that TCU is assured at least a share of the crown of what is either the toughest or second toughest baseball conference in the country, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. While they have seemingly wilted down the stretch - due to youth, injuries, etc - all is not lost. Probably.
The old cliche of one game at a time becomes very true now: win the series at Cal. Stay in the winners bracket in OKC. Host a Regional. Host a Super Regional. Back to Omaha? It’s still possible.
As much wringing of hair and gnashing of teeth there has been over the state of play on the field, let’s not forget the bigger message of the season. Those that have joined the #mashformicah campaign have seen the total rise over $40,000 after the weekend series in Norman! That’s a lot of good to be done for an incredible cause.