Something happened in the third of inning of Saturday’s game against Texas Tech. Maybe it was something Jim Schlossnagle or Kirk Saarloos said. Maybe it was a teammate’s words of encouragement or one of the inspiration messages scattered across the dugout walls. Maybe it was pure, dumb, luck. But somehow, the intersection of natural talent and hard work collided Sunday, and the result was the kind of dominating performance we had been expecting, but not yet seen, from the TCU pitching staff.
Haylen Green is a sophomore lefty, a floppy haired, hard-throwing, talented pitcher. In his first start of the season, he scuffled early, allowing the Red Raiders’ potent offense to strike for five runs while getting just six outs. But when he returned to the bump in the third, something had changed, and he went from serving up meatballs to collecting six straight outs and holding Texas Tech at bay. After a leadoff in the fifth, he was relieved by another sophomore - Jake Eissler - who had one of the Frogs’ best performances of the season in striking out 11 across five innings, without allowing a single base runner.
The hot streak continued Tuesday night, as freshman Russell Smith got the start against ACU and scattered five hits across 4.2 innings of work in keeping the Cats off the scoreboard. In relief, a pair of freshmen kept ACU to just one hit in 3.1 innings, as Caleb Sloan and Augie Mihlbauer combined to strike out four batters. (Side note: Augie is not only a great baseball name, but looks like the next closer for the Frogs if Durbin goes pro after the season, as expected. He throws hard, is hard to hit, and has a nasty streak on the mound. A very fiery guy that certainly looks the part.) After three straight first year players stepped on the rubber, a sophomore finished things off, as Cal Coughlin got three outs while allowing just one base runner.
Wednesday, it was more of the same, as Mihlbauer and Coughlin allowed just one base runner, struck out two, and walked zero in relief of Sean Wymer. That means, across three games, two starters and six relief pitchers combined to throw 19 consecutive scoreless frames, all as first or second year players. More impressive still? That the bullpen did not issue a single walk in relief over that span as well.
It takes time to make the adjustment from high school to college ball, this isn’t news to anyone. For pitchers, that seems to ring especially true, as what was overpowering to 16 year old varsity hitters becomes par for the course for seasoned college vets. That seems to be the case for the young staff of the Frogs, who may finally be rounding into shape as they hit the final month of the season. So many of these kids (and yes, they are kids) were pitching in their high school playoffs a season ago, against varying levels of competition. Now, they are facing top offense (Texas Tech and DBU are both among the leaders nationally in various offensive metrics), under tons of pressure, without time to learn as they. There is no sport like baseball, where every pitch can literally change the course of a game, or a season.
While listening to the radio call on my way home from Saturday night’s 6-0 loss to the Red Raiders, play by play man Chuck LaMendola talked about momentum. While fans were hoping that Friday night’s come from behind victory might be the start of something positive for TCU, he was quick to remind listeners that momentum doesn’t really exist in baseball. Chuck said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “you can’t really ride a wave in baseball, because every new pitcher gives you a fresh start. You can come in hot, but it just takes one guy pitching well to shut an offense down.” We certainly saw that Saturday, but from that point on, we saw what a staff of hot arms can do to change the entire fortunes of a team.
For TCU, there is so much promise in that pen. Despite facing the likely impending losses of Jared Janczak, Sean Wymer, and Durbin Feltman to the draft, guys like Augie, Caleb, Cal, Russell, Haylen, Jake, and more, seem ready to step into lead roles. And we have seen what Charles King can do on the big stage, even if he hasn’t quite caught that World Series magic yet in 2018. TCU gets a reprieve this weekend with Lamar coming to town, and should have an advantage over WVU - though the Eers are playing well lately - at home as well. Then it’s a tough test in Austin before the Big 12 Tournament, where the team with the most arms generally has the most success. Firmly planted on the bubble as April turned to May, TCU is just a decent run away from getting into the field. And if the young guys continue to pitch like this, they will be a three seed that no one wants to see if their Regional bracket.