This was supposed to be an obituary for TCU Baseball, a last rites of sort for a program that had made four straight College World Series, sent countless players to the pros, and become not just an annual contender, but expectation, in college baseball. But years of replacing talented players seemed to have finally caught up with the Frogs, as they scuffled to a sub .500 conference record and seemingly out of the postseason conversation with the #4 ranked Red Raiders coming to town.
What was supposed to happen over three games at Lupton Stadium this weekend was the passing of the torch, Texas Tech taking the mantle of “best team in Texas” as TCU faded off into the subconscious as the season wound down. But Jim Schlossnagle and the Horned Frogs weren’t quite ready to complete the handoff, bracketing a Saturday shutout with a pair of impressive victories among a flurry of long balls and walks drawn.
After slugger Luken Baker went down with injury for the second consecutive season, skipper Jim Schlossnagle said that TCU “didn’t have a lot of three run home runs in their lineup”. But, while that may still be the case, the Frogs found some power in the form of AJ Balta, Johnny Rizer, Conner Shepherd, and Josh Watson. Watson is an interesting case; after tying for the team lead during a Freshman All-American season two years ago, he endured the stereotypical sophomore slump in 2017, not hitting one over the fence until postseason play. But a few adjustments in his swing brought his power back, to the tune of a team-best six home runs so far this year. And he hit another big one into the teeth of a gusting wind Sunday afternoon, one that gave the Frogs a lead and eventually a series victory.
And that brings us back to the weekend’s series, a three game set that ended up in a perfect 15-15 tie, but was dominated by the Horned Frogs sans a brilliantly pitched shutout by Caleb Kilian Saturday night. It was a playoff atmosphere inside picturesque Lupton Stadium all three games of the nationally televised set, and the weather cooperated beautifully. The rivalry was a fierce as ever, never mind that the two teams were seemingly trending opposite directions, as a flurry of Tech fans chanted their signature RAIDER POWER over and over again into the night Friday and Saturday. In full throat during the opener, after Tech had fought back from trailing 3-0 after the first to take a 4-3 lead, AJ Balta stepped to the plate with Watson on first having drawn a lead-off walk and did this:
Those decked out in red and black got real quiet, real fast, while the fans of the home team grew louder with the backing of some Lupton Magic.
If you go back to 2010, TCU was a good story, an underdog that rolled into Austin with few expectations and stole a College World Series berth right from under UT’s nose. The Frogs swept the Fort Worth Regional for a second consecutive season, and for the second consecutive season, were rewarded with a trip to Texas and a matchup with Augie Garrido’s Longhorns. But, unlike 2009, TCU won at Texas, earning the right to go to Omaha for the first time. Transitioning from a feel-good story to a national power seemed almost effortless; after losing in their home regional a season later, the Frogs upended Texas A&M in College Station for the first - but certainly not the last - time, before falling to UCLA in the supers. But after a two year blip, Jim Schlossnagle’s squad went on to qaulify for Omaha four consecutive times, an unprecedented run for a small private school with little historical success.
But all of the winning and all of the CWS berths set an unfair expectation in Funky Town, one that set fans up for failure in 2017. Let’s get this straight right out of the gate - TCU is not a bad baseball team. Talented, even without Baker and Janczak, the Frogs have draft prospects at left field, center field, rotation, and bullpen. AJ Balta has probably played his way into a look, Zach Humphreys will be on MLB’s radar next spring, and a slough of young players have already been drafted once. What they are lacking are the intangibles that Evan Skoug, Brian Howard, Mitchell Traver, and others brought for three-four years, the “juice” that can’t be bought. Guys like Balta, Watson, Michael Landestoy, Connor Wanhanen, etc are great leaders, but their style is markedly different - and infinitely quieter.
The ultimate question is, can this version of TCU Baseball win?
The answer is decidedly yes. And after dropping the #4 Red Raiders in two out of three, they have given notice to the rest of the country, as well. Back in the top 50 of the coaches’ poll, TCU is just outside the field by RPI standards (67th as of today), but their reputation and penchant for postseason success could certainly see them in the mix come June - assuming they can win their remaining two Big 12 series, against WVU (home) and at Texas. The Mountaineers are surprising cellar-dwellers in 2018, but the Horns are a bit ahead of schedule, sitting at a surprising second in the Big 12 despite dropping two of three in Morgantown over the weekend. Though they are not yet back in the field according to the relative experts in these matters, DI Baseball, the Big 12 is strong with five of nine teams projected to make it in and two to be national seeds. Another series win against another ranked team in Texas could certainly right this wrong.
The moral of the story, Frog fans, is don’t give up on this version of TCU Baseball yet. Get out to the park, pop a cold one, and continue the playoff atmosphere that made the weekend so special. There are just seven home games remaining, and the Frogs need to win at least five of them. Be loud and help them do just that.