TCU Baseball looked like they came to play Saturday in the Little Apple.
Porter Brown led off the game with a solo home run — his second in his last two at bats, sparking a four run first that was capped with Phillip Sikes first long ball in about forever. When the Horned Frogs have scored first, they are 27-4; when they put up a hearty crooked number, they are nearly unbeatable.
A few days ago, Jim Schlossnagle said of Johnny Ray, “I find it really hard to believe that we are going to accomplish what we want to accomplish without Johnny Ray being a part of it,” adding, “Frankly, I’m excited to see Johnny Ray pitch again regardless of what the role is.”
Well, his role Saturday was a return to the starting rotation after a one game absence, shouldered with the responsibility of helping TCU fulfill their goal of an outright Big 12 Championship, something they need only win to achieve.
Up 4-0 before he threw his first pitch, Ray allowed a solo homerun, a base hit, a two run shot, and another single before recording a single out, exiting with the score knotted at four. In his last outing, the series finale against Texas, he surrendered four runs on five hits, including three home runs, in 2 1/3, meaning over his last, well, 2 1⁄3 innings, he’s allowed eight earned runs and five home runs. I don’t for a single second think that Ray wants to be anything but great in his role for TCU Baseball, but I also don’t know if he is in the right place mentally to stay in the weekend rotation with so much on the line going forward.
That’s a discussion for another day, though, as Ray’s short stint on the rubber gave way to an absolute masterclass by Chuck King, who pitched a season high 8.0 innings in relief, allowing no runs on five hits while striking out 9, his best mark of the season. Chuck was absolutely electric, getting stronger as the game went on, even as some of us were doubting whether Schloss should send him back out there. He rewarded the skipper with 1-2-3 frames in the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th, looking absolutely dominant as his offense built in some breathing room behind him.
TCU took the lead in the fourth, scoring one run thanks to a Gray Rodgers single, a sac bunt by Elijah Nunez, and a sac fly off the bat of Porter Brown — his fifth RBI of the series. Two more in the seventh made it 7-4 good guys, with Brown scoring after a leadoff single and a Zach Humphreys double, the latter of whom touched home on a Hunter Wolfe groundout. One more in the top of the ninth, thanks to back to back singles by Hump and Brayden Taylor with a stolen base in between, and a four run cushion seemed like more than enough for Haylen Green, who looked locked in Friday in earning his 11th save of the season.
Baseball can be a very cruel game; no one in the TCU bullpen has been better than Haylen this year — his 11 saves rank him in the top 6 in the country and are the best mark in the Big 12. Coming into the game, he had allowed just five runs total in Big 12 play — across 15 innings of work — but Saturday was not his night.
It’s likely that King was nearing the end of his mojo — sure, he was stretched out to be a starter if needed in 2021, but eight innings and 100 pitches thrown were more than has been asked of him all season. And who among Frog fans would want anyone but Haylen Green on the bump with a Big 12 title on the line?
Absolutely no one.
So, when Green got the first out of the ninth inning on a lineout and started his gyrating, self-talking, all legs and elbows routine ahead of facing Caleb Littlejim, we all had all the confidence in the world.
Boy, how quickly things changed.
Littlejim ripped a single to center, and hustled to third on a single to left center.
No big deal, double play ends it.
A double over the outstretched glove of Taylor cleared the bases and made it a two run game with one out and the tying run at the plate. Another double down the left field line, and all of the sudden TCU was clinging to an 8-7 lead and disaster seemed imminent.
Good thing Dylan Phillips, one of the best hitters in the Big 12, was up to bat — if you’re a Wildcats fan, that is.
Phillips delivered the game-tying base knock, and with two on two out two batters later, Chris Ceballos ripped a no-doubter over the left field fence to give Kansas State the walk-off 11-8 win.
And then all I felt was pain.
Here’s the deal: Saturday SUCKED. The last three series have SUCKED. And it’s perfectly acceptable to be severely disappointed/concerned/frustrated/scared/etc about the immediate future of this team.
But let’s hold the reins a bit: TCU Baseball earned a share of the Big 12 Conference regular season championship. They are firmly entrenched in the top 16 and looked poised to host a regional playoff series. They head to Oklahoma City next week as the league’s number 2 seed, and have the talent to play for a tourney title while there. Win that, and they could easily work their way back into the national seed conversation.
Now, if the trend of the last few weeks continues and they lay an egg in OKC, we can start worrying all over again. But, for now, let’s celebrate putting another trophy in the case in Fort Worth — because it doesn’t necessarily matter right now whether they backed into it or took it, it’s theirs. And that can’t change.