Baseball is a unique game, in that the entire complexity of a game — or even a season — can change with a single swing of the bat.
Maybe that’s what happened for TCU Wednesday, when Phillip Sikes’ walk-off winner ignited a program that had been floundering for the better part of a month headed into the Big 12 Tournament. But the team we saw bright and early Friday morning is the team that was ranked as high as #3 in the nation and seemed a lock for a national seed just a few weeks ago, dismantling a really good Texas Tech team from the mound and the batter’s box on the way to a 7-2 win.
Russell Smith got the start and delivered a masterclass, going 6.0 strong innings — his longest outing in nearly six weeks — allowing just two runs on three hits with ten strikeouts against the Red Raiders’ potent offense and holding Jace Jung and Dru Baker hitless in a game that felt like the de facto National Seed elimination contest.
The Frogs jumped on Tech starter Patrick Monteverde early, scoring twice in the first inning. Porter Brown led off the game with a double, and Zach Humphreys — who has been red hot — traded places with him with a double of his own. Hump advanced to third on Brayden Taylor’s groundout and scored on a Hunter Wolfe sac fly, and TCU had the early 2-0 lead.
Wolfe delivered again in the third — with a little help from the Texas Tech defense. An error at second put Brown on base again, and Taylor’s single put runners on first and third in front of Wolfe. His infield single, coupled with another error, cleared the bases and gave TCU a 4-0 cushion. Tech answered in the top of the fifth, as a leadoff double coupled with a two run home run by Nate Rombach’s two run shot cut the lead in half, but that was the only noise the bats made for the Red Raiders in OKC Friday morning. And it only served to fire up the man on the mound. “I really wasn’t happy about the home run — I felt like the pitch before was a strike. I got a little angry, had a little more competitive edge going into the sixth. It was straight attack mode from that point on.”
Smith worked around a lead-off walk in the sixth before back to back K’s against Jung and Stilwell and a ground ball to second quickly ended the frame. Jim Schlossnagle said after the game that the sixth inning was the “tell-tale inning. To come back after giving up the home run and get three quick outs — it’s about pitching well at the right time.” Schloss added that Smith “looked like his former self, pitching with conviction, working that downward angle fastball and throwing a good changeup.” Smith agreed, admitting that he hasn’t felt right since his one week break from the rotation. “I really feel like today was one of those days where I had to compete — I competed my tail off. Since I had that week off, I haven’t been myself. This week is the most I have felt myself.”
The Frogs added to their cushion in the seventh, with Luke Boyers singling and eventually scoring on a wild pitch. Garrett Wright, who took over in the top of the inning, three of the first four batters he faced, but got into a little trouble in the eighth, when an error and a walk put two on with one out. Smith continued to pump up the freshman, who, as he said “isn’t a freshman at this point in the season.” Smith added “I touched on it the first weekend, but he’s one of the most talented guys I have seen come into the program as a freshman.”
That’s when Haylen Green got the call.
Of course, we all know what happened the last time TCU’s best reliever took the mound, the first time he has seemed fallible in 2021. But, there was no doubt he would get the call in what felt like a must-win game for TCU.
“I didn’t expect anything different,” Schloss said. “Like I said to him in front of the team when we got back [from the Kansas State series]: whether its up a run, up five, up seven — if he’s available to pitch, he’s pitching. There is nobody we would want on the mound.” Smith agreed saying, “there was no doubt Haylen was coming in and was going to do what he did. He’s our most trusted guy.”
Green did what we are used to seeing him do: get out of a bad situation. A close play on a potential double play went Tech’s way to keep the inning alive, but Green struck Stilwell out looking to end the inning and get the Frogs’ fired up. I think there was even a little chirping toward the Red Raider dugout after, but it’s hard to say for sure. The Frogs added two more in the bottom of the inning when they started the frame with three straight walks and got four free passes altogether.
That left Green for the ninth, when he worked around a lead-off single and a walk with a game-ending double play.
As far as being a play-in game for a National Seed? Schloss isn’t buying it. “I don’t feel that way. Our conference, the #2 RPI conference in the country with three teams in top eight — if that was another conference, one with three letters in their name, they wouldn’t even be worried. Do I believe we deserve that? Yes. Do I believe that Tech deserves that? Yes. And obviously Texas as well. The Big 12, the top half at least, deserves as much respect as anybody else.”
Will the committee believe that? We will find out Monday. For now, TCU has more work to do, and will face the winner of this afternoon’s Texas Tech vs Kansas State contest tomorrow morning.