TCU Baseball is in Fayetteville this weekend, facing off with a couple of old football friends in California and Arkansas. Though Gary Patterson has managed to shut both teams down recently on the gridiron, his expertise won’t be much help to Jim Schlossnagle - who would certainly welcome the defensive intensity brought by his coaching brother.
One of the toughest regionals in the bracket, the Horned Frogs have a tough challenge ahead, as both nationally ranked Arkansas and Pac 12 contender Cal won’t go away quietly.
Oh, and don’t sleep on the Blue Devils, either.
We reached out to our friends at Golden Blogs (Ruey Yen) and Arkansas Fight (Tucker Partridge) to get the skinny on what we can expect in Fayetteville this weekend (we tried to talk to someone representing CCSU as well, but our inquiries went unanswered).
Now, it’s time to play ball!
Describe your season in a nutshell - did your team overachieve, underachieve, or do what you expected? How did the team get to this point?
Arkansas Fight: This year was one of the most baffling over-achievements I think I’ve seen. It’s weird to say that, but after you make it all the way to the finals of the College World Series, lose your pitching coach to the MLB, and lose ten guys in the MLB draft, you usually expect a step back. That was not so this year, as Dave Van Horn got the Hogs back up from last year’s devastating loss, and has the team in a position to make another run for Omaha.
Isaiah Campbell has become a dependable, excellent starting pitcher, though that was mostly expected. Casey Martin has been a revelation this year, but after showing a ton of promise last year, perhaps that’s not as shocking either. What took me by surprise the most is the emergence of pitcher Connor Noland as a solid starting pitcher. Noland is a dual sport athlete, playing quarterback for the football team in the fall, but he hasn’t looked out of place at all on the mound.
Overall, I think pitching has been better than expected, and bats have met and sometimes exceeded expectations.
Golden Blogs: Cal Baseball finishing with a 32-18 overall and a 17-11 Pac-12 record in 2019 was definitely a very pleasant surprise. Golden Bears had a winning season in 2018 but missed out on the postseason. Then we lost a ton of talent to the 2018 MLB Draft but retain the 2018 Golden Spikes winner in slugging first baseman Andrew Vaughn. Cal fans were really hoping that Vaughn gets at least one postseason experience before his inevitable turning pro this summer.
Unfortunately, the entire pitching staff coming into the season only had 3 experienced returnees with two guys showing great promise but bad collegiate results. Head coach Mike Neu, a former MLB pitcher, showed his ability to develop pitching by getting career years from the 3 returnees and freshmen. Several pitchers also showed great improvements between the beginning of the season and now.
Even with Vaughn replicating his video game-esque numbers (0.387 batting average, 0.549 on-base percentage, 0.728 slugging percentage) to be a Golden Spikes semifinalist yet again, one can argue that the Cal offense as a whole also overachieved with the emergence of catcher Korey Lee (0.422 OBP, 0.619 SLG) as a slugger who hits behind Vaughn and centerfielder Cameron Eden (0.434 OBP, 19 for 23 on steal attempts) and infielder Quentin Selma (0.380 OBP, 0.612 SLG) at the top of the lineup.
Frogs O’ War: After the disappointment of 2018, it’s great to be back in the postseason for TCU fans. But I think there is still a feeling that this team has underachieved overall, when you look at how bad the defense was and how many games the Frogs’ bullpen blew in the late-innings throughout the season.
When you have a top ten draft pick anchoring your rotation and an offense that ranks among some of the most explosive in the country, you expect to be in contention for a league title. That didn’t happen, but the Frogs showed enough fight down the stretch to get people believe that Omaha isn’t as out of reach as we may have though a month ago. Now, they have to prove that they belong in the field and go out and win some ball games.
What was the best win of the season? What was the worst loss?
Arkansas Fight: The win that seems to have set the tone for this season seems to be the series sweep over then No. 1 Mississippi State. I think most Arkansas fans were cautiously optimistic, but that series sweep showed that this team means business, and that it wasn’t out of the question to wonder if returning to Omaha was possible. The bats showed off, and the pitching staff showed that it was deep enough to go several days as the team won 5-3, 12-5, and 10-2. That series made Arkansas fans believe again.
What brought that belief back down to earth and probably served as a reality check was the horrid showing at the SEC Tournament. It’s not so much that one loss in particular stands out as the worst, but the bats failed to show up in crunch time. I think the team will hit better at home, but the week in Hoover showed that this team can’t underestimate any opponent.
Golden Blogs: For the best win - I would cheat here and say that it’s a tie between beating No.1 UCLA 4-1 on April 19th in LA and beating then No.3 Stanford 18-2 on May 11th in Berkeley. Both games saw great pitching from Cal junior RHP Jared Horn. More importantly, Cal offense was able to score some runs off top quality starters like what one would expect to see in the postseason. The rout over Stanford was the most lopsided Cal victory in the long rivalry, I believe, which makes it super sweet.
For the worst loss, I would go with the 4-3 loss at then No.9 LSU back on March 8th. Certainly, Cal has lost to much worse teams, but this one was agonizing as the Bears were one out away but allowed LSU to win via a walkoff hit in game 1 of the series. At the time, we worried that this loss might keep the Bears out of the postseason, that fear was somewhat abated by the Bears winning the next game for their first of several wins this season over a top 10 ranked team.
Frogs O’ War: Best win was one of the first - the domination over Vanderbilt. The Frogs also won a road series at West Virginia, a regional host, late in the season, and beat Oklahoma State in a crazy back and forth game in the Big 12 Tournament that gave them a shot to play again.
Worst loss? Wow... take your pick of any of the midweek thuds, but nothing hurt more than dropping a home game against Lamar right after knocking off the Mountaineers.
What does your team do well (pitching, hitting, defense, etc)?
Arkansas Fight: When this team has been at its best this year, everything has been a strength. The team can hit well enough to score however many runs are needed, and the pitching staff has looked like a group of aces. Starting pitchers are probably a key area of strength going into this series, and assuming things return to at least average, batting will be a strength as well.
Golden Blogs: Hitting is certainly the strength of the Cal team this year. Bears are particularly great at getting on base, particularly the top half of the lineup, although they have not scored as many runs (6.78 per game) as one would think for a team with a On-Base Percentage of 0.383.
Frogs O’ War: The starting pitching is something to see, especially lefty Nick Lodolo, who is going to be a top ten pick in the upcoming MLB Draft. Lodolo is long, lanky, and full of gas - he leads the team with 125 strikeouts and has only 21 players all year. While he is the clear leader and star of the rotation, Brandon Williamson (a likely top 100 pick) and Charles King (a burgeoning star) are really, really good, and capable of going the distance is needed. Williamson will get the start Friday night, and if the Frogs can hang on against Cal, it sets up a fascinating matchup on Lodolo verses the bats of the Razorbacks.
TCU can also put up runs in bunches, something they showed in the Big 12 Tournament. 1-9, everyone can hit - and hit it out - and with Jake Guenther expected to return to the lineup, it’s even more dangerous. The way the bullpen was playing, the Frogs are going to have to put up runs in bunches this weekend to have a shot.
What is your team’s biggest weakness?
Arkansas Fight: Bullpen and bats were not so great in the SEC tournament. No one hit well in Hoover, and this isn’t a good time to stop hitting. I tend to think that the performance in Alabama was an anomaly, but it’s something to keep in mind going into the regional. Bullpen pitching has been weird this year, as the staff has been unstoppable at times, and incredibly suspect at others. It depends on who shows up at Baum-Walker Stadium this weekend.
Golden Blogs: Cal pitching has used an “opener” for the Friday game although that effective reliever (Arman Sabouri) has now been stretched out to sometimes go 5-6 innings. After a bullpen game on Friday and ace Jared Horn on Saturday, Sunday pitching has been problematic. In other word, I am worried about the Cal bullpen, but I think that’s the norm for most teams.
Frogs O’ War: The bullpen has been shaky outside of one or two guys, and the defense was downright atrocious in OKC - a five error game ultimately cost them a chance to win the tournament. A lot of young pitchers took a step back in their development in 2019, and in a double elimination structured tournament like this, they need more than Haylen Green to get it done.
I can’t give you a reason as to why the defense has been so bad - it’s really inexcusable. All over the field, guys are turning easy plays into errors, so you have to think it’s mental. If they reset over the week, they should be able to clean things up.
What player(s) will fans want to be paying attention to during the regional?
Arkansas Fight: Casey Martin is one of the most stellar young athletes I’ve seen in college baseball. While he’s developed into a very reliable hitter, it’s his ability to make the extraordinary seem mundane. There are several instances where he’ll make an incredible defensive play without breaking a sweat. Watch him field the ball every chance you get, because he’s almost certainly going to pull off some kind of nonchalant circus play.
Golden Blogs: 1B Andrew Vaughn is probably the best hitter in college baseball these past two years. He hits a lot of homers, but also is willing to take the walk; Vaughn’s on-base percentage is 55% with 58 walks in 50 games this season. Vaughn is special because he has now hit 50 collegiate homers while only striking out 74 times. He is going to be a top-5 pick next week at the MLB draft despite being a right handed 1st baseman - an attribute that used to disqualify people from being pro baseball prospect.
Frogs O’ War: Definitely Lodolo - he is downright special. Johnny Rizer is another guy who has a penchant for making the impossible catch in center field, and is a streaky hitter who has really pop in his bat when he’s hot. Jake Guenther is a pure power hitter who changes the dynamic of the lineup, so hopefully he’s healthy.
I also want to give some love to TCU’s iron man, left fielder Josh Watson, who will break the record for starts in the program this evening. He has played and started every single game of his four year TCU career, and has become a dominant offensive player in his senior season.
For (your team) to make it out of the Fayetteville Regional, _____________________ has to happen.
Arkansas Fight: The real Arkansas Razorback Baseball Team needs to show up-- not the weird team that showed up in Hoover. If the pitching and batting meets expectations, this team is capable of a deep tournament run. The fans will be up in full force, and should create an intimidating environment for the other teams. The team gets home cooking, and is in a great position to win the regional. The only blame if the Hogs don’t make it out will be on the team itself.
Golden Blogs: For Cal to win the Fayetteville Regional, I believe that the Golden Bears would need to hit a bunch of homers (which is both a no-brainer and also a very modern Sabremetric-approved answer). While on paper, postseason pitching should be stronger that home runs are suppressed, Bears have done well in 2019 thanks to the big flies, outslugging their opponents 80 to 46. Four Bears have double digit dingers. Some timely 3-run bombs will be the key for the Golden Bears to surprise everyone.
Frogs O’ War: The defense needs to be competent and the bullpen needs to look like it’s capable of. Also, redshirt senior Jared Janczak needs to recapture the magic of a week ago and be a reliable fourth starter for the Frogs.
If TCU wins Friday, they will turn to Nick Lodolo Saturday and Charles King in game three. That could set up Janczak for a winner take all start, a storybook chapter in a phenomenal career that was hampered by injuries late.
But for that to happen, the Frogs need to get quality innings out of Jake Eissler and Haylen Green in relief, and need someone like Cal Coughlin, Augie Mihlbauer, or Dalton Brown to have a big weekend.
Anything else folks should know about your team?
Arkansas Fight: I think given that Fayetteville is the host city, this is an opportunity to give any travelling fans a layout of the city! Fayetteville is a great little city in a beautiful part of Arkansas. While you’re here, there are a few highlights you’ll want to check out. Dickson Street is probably the biggest culture center in Fayetteville, as it’s the main bar and restaurant district. Be careful though-- Dickson Street is undefeated. For good eats, check out Hugo’s, Hammontrees, Taste of Thai, and Wright’s BBQ. My favorite bars are 21st Amendment and Dickson Street Pub, but there are tons more. Almost all of these are pretty centrally located, so you won’t have a problem navigating from Baum-Walker Stadium to any of these places. If you happen to stay beyond the regional, there’s a lot of good natural activities like camping and hiking trails, and if you get a chance, making the trip to Crystal Bridges Art Museum is well worth it. It’s a really welcoming city, and Arkansas fans will be more than happy to show off home if you just ask!
Golden Blogs: Although Cal Baseball has not been that relevant on the national stage recently, we did win the very first College World Series over a Yale team that had future president George H.W. Bush as their first baseman. Much more recently, Cal had a magical 2010 College World Series run after the program was announced to be eliminated - of course, donations from alumni and other people have saved the program (for now). Cal being gifted a god sent national player of the year level player like an Andrew Vaughn (who really emerged as a prospect *after* enrolling at Cal) for the past three years has been a blessing at just the right time, when the initial 10 year extension on the life of the program is about to expire. Given the on-going budget problem for the entire state of California, not just Cal Athletics with its huge debt from football stadium renovation, I am not completely certain that Cal Baseball is completely safe until it is fully funded by an endowment. Having more national exposure like making this regional is important for the program’s future.
Frogs O’ War: This is a group of guys that are as talented as anyone they face off against, but seem to be missing... something. The way they played most of the Big 12 Tournament is what they are capable of - great starting pitching, timely hitting with a penchant for the big inning, never say die attitude, and plenty of speed.
But, they also saw complete and total meltdowns on defense and out of the bullpen.
So, can TCU win this regional?
Who the hell knows.
But the fun is in finding out, right?
Thanks again to Ruey and Tucker for their thoughts!
2019 NCAA Fayetteville Regional Schedule
Friday, May 31
Game 1 – No. 1 Arkansas vs. No. 4 Central Connecticut, 1 p.m. CT (ESPN3)
Game 2 – No. 2 California vs. No. 3 TCU, 6 p.m. CT (ESPN3)
Saturday, June 1
Game 3 – Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 12 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 4 – Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m. (ESPN3)
Sunday, June 2
Game 5 – Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 6 – Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 8 p.m. (ESPN3)
Monday, June 3
Game 7 – Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 (if necessary), 6 p.m. (ESPN3)