“I don’t know where we would be without AJ Balta.”
A lot of special players laced ‘em for TCU Baseball this past season, and the seasons before them. We got more baseball nominations than for any other sport... Luken Baker, Durbin Feltman, Jared Janczak, Josh Watson... there were plenty of great options. Shoot, even guys like Jake Eissler, Haylen Green, Augie Mihlbauer - and who could forget Michael Landestoy - deserved to be considered.
But... as I was narrowing down the field... that quote kept coming back to me. It was something Jim Schlossnagle said multiple times, and that I heard him say after Haylen Green came a couple of outs away from throwing a no-hitter - “I don’t know where we would be without AJ Balta.”
See... Luken Baker is a pristine talent, a special player rarely seen in the college game. Durbin Feltman is the kind of guy that’s easy to root for - unheralded as a recruit, he becomes a superstar through hard work, good coaching, and experience. Michael Landestoy got serious consideration, too, as a fifth year senior who finally got his chance to be an every day started - and absolutely owned it.
But, every time I considered a player, I kept coming back to Balta.
Baker, Feltman, and Janczak all missed time due to injuries, and in their absence, Balta stepped up in a big way. His is a very unique story, and especially so for Jim Schlossnagle - who almost never takes senior transfers. His journey to TCU was winding - the former Oregon Duck by way of Valencia, CA hit .242 with three home runs and 29 RBI as a freshman (starting 56 games), missed his second season due to injury, mashed nine dingers in his second year of competitive play - though his average dipped to .212 - and dropped to just one long ball and a .200 average as a redshirt junior. He needed a change of scenery, and took a chance by reaching out to Schloss and TCU. It didn’t take long for him to realize that Fort Worth was home.
Balta was a day one starter, one of just two players to play in, and start, every game on the schedule (the other was junior Josh Watson). Opening the year in right field, Balta was slid over to center early when Johnny Rizer got hurt against GCU. He would man the middle until Rizer’s return late in the season, making a handful of highlight reel plays - including an absolute laser from right field in the Big 12 Championship game to keep the Frogs ahead late (though we all remember how that one ended ***sad face***). Balta led the team in batting average (.310), RBI (59 - 17 more than second place), doubles (17), and slugging percentage (.517%). He was second on the team in home runs with seven, including two in the aforementioned Big 12 Championship game.
More impressive than his on the field stats was his off the field and dugout leadership. Balta came is as a grad transfer, assimilated right away, and didn’t just fit in - but became a true team leader. For a squad with just three seniors and a ton of young talent, that was irreplaceable.
Sure, TCU Baseball had a disappointing season - not even making the playoffs after four straight trips to Omaha. But, there were some amazing moments, an impressive tournament run, and a foundation built to get the Frogs back where they belong. And, should the Frogs make a postseason run in 2019, in my opinion, they’ll owe a debt of gratitude to the man that wore the purple for just one year - but, man, did he wear it well.
What would we have done without AJ Balta? I am glad we didn’t have to find out.