Four players: three pitchers and a catcher, an uneven battery, so to speak, of guys have been around Lupton for a long time.
King feels like he has been around forever at this point; after picking up his first career win as a freshman in Omaha — a bravado performance that brought him from a pretty good prospect to a big time pitcher — he has gone on to play a variety of roles for TCU. He’s started 17 games in his career and made 61 appearances, leading the Frogs in innings pitcher in the shortened 2020 season. King’s 2018 season was masterful; in 16 appearances (four starts), he was 2-2 with a 3.12 ERA, 30 strikeouts and just 13 walks. Though he threw just 40 innings, he was a consistent option no matter where he was asked to produce. He was a workhorse the following year — second on the team in innings (85.2) and fourth in appearances with 21. He had the team’s third best ERA and was third in total strikeouts as well.
He’s looked strong in 2021: so much so that Jim Schlossnagle said that “he’s pitching better than two of the three of the guys that I’ve mentioned [as the likely weekend starters], but we want to be able to put guys in the best position to help the team. Trey Teakell could have been a starting pitcher, but I called him our all time pitcher because he could close a game or could start a game.” Expect King to one of those guys this year, as injury protection and due to COVID contract-tracing protocols. There will be even more shifting than usual in this new world, and having versatile arms like King and Green put TCU in a better position than most. “You have two guys in their fifth year that have pitched in the College World Series and are extreme strike throwers- you’re in luck,” Schloss added.
Speaking of Green, he might be the most under-appreciated player in the sport. Another fifth year senior, Green was absolutely perfect in 17.2 innings last spring, posting an unblemished 0.00 ERA while striking out 19, primed to post the best numbers of his storied career. Having made just 10 career starts while appearing in 63 games, Haylen has struck out a batter per inning across the first four years of his career.
After a difficult start in 2019, he was pitching as good or better than anyone else in the roster, momentum he carried into the postseason that summer. He allowed just one run in three appearances at the Big 12 Championship Tournament in Oklahoma City and had a nice defensive play as an outfield replacement in the Fayetteville Regional in addition to throwing well from the mound. It set him up for 2020, he said in meeting with the media last week. “I think a lot of it was the confidence that I gained at the end of my junior season. I thought I pitched really well in the conference tournament, and I wanted to build momentum from that. I gained confidence in the fall, jumped into a leadership role, and that helped me expand my role on the team.” Depsite his growth, he’s another player that went unnoticed nationally, and in his own conference, when it came to preseason awards each of the last two years. “My name got left out. I took it personally — I wanted to prove to people that I’m a pitcher that should be taken seriously here. I want to prove people wrong — that’s same attitude that I have this year.”
Much like King, Green doesn’t care where he plays — he came back to win, period. “It’s something that me and [Schlossnagle] have discussed. I told him I just want to win; I’ll pitch wherever I need to pitch — winning is all that matters. I like to pitch where it matters and where I’m needed. Anytime Im needed, I’m there.” In fact, the super senior seems to prefer to come out of the pen as opposed to starting — because it means pitching more often. “The more I get to touch that mound, the more confidence I build. If my name isn’t on the ‘ready to pitch list’, I tell him ‘I’m ready — I’ll be in the bullpen’. It’s a good feeling to feel like this is something I want to do every day.”
That drive to want to play every day is evident amongst all of the guys that came back — the love of baseball hasn’t left them. “I knew in the bottom of my heart that I was going to come back,” Humphreys said of his decision to make one more run at Omaha. “We’ve got a bunch of really good players that hungry to prove themselves and are playing with a chip on their shoulder.” Hump is one of those guys that seems to have a perma-chip on his shoulders; arriving as a freshman in 2017, he had to bide his time behind Evan Skoug, but still worked his way into the lineup, starting 11 games at catcher and 16 more at DH. He’s been a solid defensive player throughout his career, committing just eight errors in total despite touching the ball on just about every play. He was playing the best offensive baseball of his career early on in 2020, hitting .295 with eight doubles (his career high is 10), and slugging .477. His skipper thinks 2021 will be even better. “He’s a year older, a year stronger. The ball is coming off of his bat a little differently now.”
But this is also the first time that Humphreys will face real competition, with the highly-touted Kurtis Byrne fighting for time behind the dish. It doesn’t phase the fifth year senior in the slightest. “Every season it’s a competition. It’s not “my job” — I have to go win a job. Especially this year, we’ve had to share more reps: with COVID, who knows. We have to make sure that everybody is ready.” But, while Byrne is certainly the future, Humphreys has a clear advantage in the now, having handled a pitching staff for the better part of four seasons and with a good bead on the veteran staff. That experience doesn’t mean it will come easy, though. “The guys that have returned, even though they are the same people, they’ve learned new pitches. It’s a challenge to learn new stuff, new tendencies, and new pitchers,” he said. “This year, the challenge is to get to know them, connect off the field, learn what makes them tick so that we can communicate better in games.”
While learning new staff is a challenge, Humphreys certainly has a great repore with King and Green, as well as Dalton Brown. Brown has literally been around forever — his freshman season was way back in 2016. Despite that, he has made just 35 career appearances, struggling with injury, missing almost all of the 2018 season and not getting any action in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.
Brown is a bit of a wildcard, who could be best served as the elder statesman of the staff but also a guy who can still really hurl it. When he’s sharp he’s exceptional — something he showed in his first two seasons, striking out 11 each in just 9.0 and 8.0 innings of work. But he can be a little wild at times, walking six in 2018 and 14 in 2019 in 19.1 innings of work. If he’s healthy, he is a guy who makes the staff better. The big question will be, can he break his career high of 15 appearances?
For Jim Schlossnagle, the challenge in this year of expanded rosters will be keeping everyone involved as the program tries to win now while keeping an eye on the future. “Our challenge as a coaching staff is obviously to win games, but I don’t want to turn over an entire lineup after one season. We want to continue to develop the program for the future. For the older players, it’s their job to lose, but with COVID and everything, it’s going to take everybody.”