Jim Schlossnagle had exactly what he wanted in the ninth. Managing his bullpen to create the matchups he wanted, he used a host of pitchers in the seventh and eighth to set up the Frogs with a one run lead in the bottom of the ninth and Durbin Feltman on the mound.
Well, Schloss ***thought*** he had exactly what he wanted.
It looked like this one was going to get away from TCU early, as the Frogs threw away a golden opportunity in the top of the first inning while watch Baylor put three on the board by way of the long ball in the bottom.
Coby Boulware reached on an error to open the game, and Josh Watson followed with a hit. But the Frogs couldn’t bring a run across in inning, and that would come back to haunt them later. Meanwhile, an error by Adam Oviedo allowed the leadoff man for the Bears to reach safely. That seemed to throw off starter Haylen Green, who followed that AB with a four pitch walk setting things up for the three run home run that game the Bears the early lead.
Green settled down from there and got out of the inning without further damage. That allowed the TCU offense to begin chipping way, but they couldn’t find the big inning that had brought them so much success all week in Oklahoma City. The Frogs got their first run of the ballgame from an unlikely source, as senior Connor Wanhanen blasted one to right center for a solo home run; his second of the season and third of his career. AJ Balta rocked one to right an inning later, making it a 3-2 game in the third. That’s how things would stay for a good, long while.
After Green issued a free pass and a single to start the bottom of the third, he gave way to Jake Eissler, who had been very effective Thursday night in relief against WVU. Green allowed three runs on three hits, walked two, and struck out three. Eissler was nails in long relief, going 4.1 innings, allowing just one hit, and striking out six. He exited in the bottom of the seventh with two down and a runner on second, giving way to Cal Coughlin as the Frogs tried to stay within striking distance.
TCU had several good opportunities to score and tie things up, but time and time again Baylor made the pitches they needed to to hold the lead. The most regrettable missed opportunity came in the top of the sixth, when centerfielder Johnny Rizer legged out a triple with one out. But Zach Humphreys hit a shallow pop to center and Connor Wanhanen struck out to leave the tying run 90’ away.
But, baseball is different than most team sports, in that one player playing well at the right time can be enough to propel a team to the mountaintop. For TCU, in Oklahoma City, that was the case, and that player was senior AJ Balta. In the top of the eighth, after Josh Watson looped one into left field, Balta stepped to the plate and knocked a two-run shot to dead center to give TCU the lead and, it appeared, a clear path to the title and the extension of their season.
Schloss used four pitchers to get four outs in the seventh and eighth, a strategy that looked brilliant... until it wasn’t. Feltman took the mound in the bottom of the ninth in a save situation, and got two quick outs to put the Frogs oh so close to a Big 12 title. But Johnny Rizer lost a ball in the sun in center for a double, and AJ Balta did the same in right to allow the Bears to tie things up and force extra innings. Both teams were scoreless in the tenth, though the Bears threatened with two on thanks to a hit and a TCU error with Caleb Sloan on the mound. But Trey Morris came on in relief and got the Frogs out of trouble, keeping their season alive.
Unfortunately, it was short lived.
The Frogs took the lead again in the top of the 11th, as Zach Humphreys led off the frame by drawing a four pitch walk, advanced to second on Connor Wanhanen’s groundout, and scored on a Conner Shepherd single, with a close play at the plate. After Morris walked the leadoff man in the bottom of the frame, Schloss pulled him, brining in the little-used Austin Boyles with the season on the line. Boyles, who threw only 4.2 innings in conference play this year, struck out the first batter he faced before walking the next two. That set up Shea Langeliers in a bases loaded situation, and after getting ahead 3-0, he singled to right on a full count to drive in the winning run. This loss does not fall on Boyles, who gave everything he had, but was in a very unfamiliar situation in a season in which he had pitched just 10.1 innings.
The loss ends TCU’s season and postseason at-large bid chances, and may very well be the last time we see several prominent figures in purple. Luken Baker, Jared Janczak, Durbin Feltman, and Sean Wymer could all elect to go pro, and Connor Wanhanen, AJ Balta, and Michael Landestoy all graduate. The biggest question mark of all, though, and the most worrisome to Frog fans, is the future of Jim Schlossnagle - who is rumored to be strongly considering taking the open position at Mississippi State.
For now, we can only appreciate the run TCU made and the contributions of the players who gave it their all. We will leave the rest for tomorrow.