Fort Worth, TX - Lupton Magic feels like a mythical thing most of the time, an entity that exists primarily in our memories when we think back on 22-inning games, eight run rallies, and silencing thousands of Aggies on late summer nights.
But, then, a weekend like this happens, and we are reminded that the Magic is very real indeed.
The Frogs sandwiched a blowout loss to a top ten team around a pair of comeback victories; improbable rallies that are inexplainable to those that know baseball best. And, yet, it continues to happen in Fort Worth in the small stadium that sits on the corner of Berry St. and Bellaire Dr. Sunday was one of those games that will go down as an all-timer; months and years from now, ten thousand people will claim to have been in the building. Down 7-2 heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, with as many errors as hits through the first four frames, this one seemed #9 Texas’ to take. In a matchup of ranked foes, the Longhorns had seemed to be the better team all weekend, and when the pressure ratcheted up with the series on the line, it was the Frogs that fell apart. At first.
The Longhorns struck first Sunday afternoon, building off of their 13 run performance Saturday night, scoring three runs on four hits with the help of a couple perfectly placed bunts and a TCU error. The Frogs got one back in the bottom of the first, making it a two run ball game on Josh Watson’s second home run of the year - this a solo shot to left. After a pair of scoreless frames in the second and third, the Horns came roaring back against TCU starter Brandon Williamson, once again with the help of some small ball and some bad TCU defense. Catcher Michael McCann led off with a perfectly placed bunt down the third base line, a ball that third baseman Conner Shepherd couldn’t get a grip on. That was followed by Lance Ford’s bunt, one that Alex Isola fielded and threw over the head of Adam Oviedo trying to get the lead runner out - leading to runners at second and third with no outs. After the speedy Duke Ellis drew a walk, Eric Kennedy bunted safely, scoring a run and ending Williamson’s day. Charles King came on in relief, stopping the bleeding with a trio of fly balls - only one of which scored a Texas run. Williamson finished the game having allowed five runs - only three of which were earned - on seven hits, striking out five and walking three. The meltdown wasn’t entirely his fault - the defensive lapses didn’t help - but he was far from sharp in one of his least successful outings of the year.
A second solo shot in the bottom of the frame - this one off of the bat of Austin Henry - make it a 5-2 ball game, as the Frogs kept chipping away using the long ball. Texas answered again in the sixth, scoring a pair of unearned runs thanks to three hits and another critical TCU error. But, once again, the Frogs answered with the long ball, and this one seemed to change the entire trajectory of the game.
Alex Isola battled reliever Kamron Fields to lead-off the bottom of the sixth, striking out after an eight pitch at bat. One pitch later, he plunked Jake Guenther, who advanced to second one pitch after that on Henry’s single to left field. Johnny Rizer followed with the second strikeout of the game, leaving Adam Oviedo in a two on, two out situation. He launched a ball to left on an 0-1 count for a three run jack, cutting the Texas lead to 7-5 and bringing the crowd back into the ball game. It changed the thinking of the players, as well, according to the man who hit it. “I think that was a really big energy booster for the team overall as far as morale. I think that really kind of sparked the flame for us to think ‘hey, we are still in this ball game, we can still play’.”
Augie Mihlbauer entered the game in the top of the seventh, walking the first batter he faced on four pitches. After a groundout and a single, he was lifted for Dalton Brown, who was exceptional in a tough spot. Brown got a ground ball to third for the second out, scoring a run, but followed that by getting Zach Zubia - a dangerous power hitter - to fly out and end the threat. The Frogs got that one back in the bottom of the seventh though, when Hunter Wolfe took advantage of some favorable wind to send a two run shot over the wall in left, the first long ball of his TCU career. It was the start of seven unanswered runs for the Horned Frogs that allowed them to take a lead they would not relinquish.
Brown got into a little trouble in the top of the eighth, walking a batter with one out and hitting another with two down. A passed ball put runners at second and third, causing Jim Schlossnagle to call for his closer - freshman Marcelo Perez. In the biggest spot of his young career, the righty was nails - striking out Ford looking to end the frame and give the Frogs the hope they needed.
Trailing 8-7 with six outs remaining, TCU torched the Texas bullpen for a five run eighth, the only runs they scored by something other than a home run. Cole Quintanilla came on to pitch for the Longhorns, and was lit up - he took the loss by allowing four runs (two earned) on three hits and an error. The Frogs hit the ball hard at defenders in their big inning, putting pressure on the Texas infielders to make plays time and time again - and more often than not, they weren’t able to. Oviedo singled to short with one out to start things off, advancing to third on Shepherd’s single and scoring when Andrew Keefer put one in the right spot in the gap between first and second base. Once the game was tied, it was all but over. An error on Wolfe’s ground ball gave TCU their first lead of the day, two more runs came across on a fielder’s choice gone horribly wrong, as Ford sailed one into center field trying to make a play at second base. Jake Guenther’s double a batter later put the fifth run on the board for the Frogs, giving them a 12-8 lead that would be more than enough for Perez in the ninth. But, the closer had sat for a long period of time, and that can be torture for a young pitcher. “I was pretty anxious. I was worried that my arm was going to start cramping up or start hurting. So when we had two outs I went and threw on the side - about six pitches. I was thinking a lot. But everything turned out well.”
Well, indeed. After a long, nine pitch, at bat, Perez induced a groundout from Ellis. The second out was a little more adventurous - on an 0-2 count, Kennedy hit a high pop towards the Texas dugout, and both Guenther and Isola charged it. Though Jake called for the ball, Isola kept going, and the two collided in foul territory. Somehow, Isola held on, and the Horns were down to their final out.
Perez, with the pressure mounting, delivered, striking out Todd on five pitches. It’s a moment he will cherish, and one that had him at a loss for words, as a young kid from a small town who had had a rough fall. “It’s honestly unexplainable for the coaches to trust me to come and do the job. I just love this team, honestly. I didn’t real expect to pitch a lot because I had pretty rough outings in the fall. I kept going, I didn’t stop, I kept working hard. I’m at a loss for words right now.”
Earning a series win over a top ranked conference foe to begin Big 12 play is a big deal for the Frogs, and doing so in dramatic fashion is something that could carry them throughout the season. But don’t expect the skipper to give it too much thought. “We won’t know until the season’s over, but it’s better than the alternative, obviously. But, especially after last night, and being down 7-2, human instinct is just to give in. The guys did a hell of a job - it means we are 2-1 in the league and we just won a series, but there’s a lot of baseball to be played. And we need to play a lot better to have a chance to win a title.”
Henry led the Frogs with three hits, while both Wolfe and Oviedo drove in three runs. TCU drew just two walks and struck out just three times, while the pitching staff collected nine Ks and issued five free passes. Brown and King gave great performances out of the pen in addition to Perez’s dominance.
The Frogs’ goals remain the same, but having a little magic on their side is never a bad thing. And the magic was present in spades over the opening weekend of conference play at Lupton.
Maybe the freshman closer put it best: “I love Lupton. Lupton is home. It’s unexplainable. I’ve never been to a regional or super regional, but I bet that’s what it’s like. Unbelievable.”