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MLB4 Tournament Preview: The Kirk Saarloos Era Begins

Frogball USA is back, and while it’s a familiar face at the helm, it’s a whole new ballgame.

The best version of baseball is back, as Opening Day for the college game kicks off this weekend.

For TCU Baseball, under the new leadership of Kirk Saarloos, that means packing their bags and heading west, as the Frogs will join the field in Arizona for the MLB4 Tournament in Scottsdale for a weekend at Salt River Fields, spring training site of the Diamondbacks and Rockies.

This is the second appearance in Scottsdale for TCU, who were part of the inaugural tournament field back in 2019. This year, the slate includes San Diego State, Cal, and Houston; two of the three are familiar foes from the MWC and SWC days for TCU.

GAME DETAILS/PITCHING ROTATION

Friday, Feb. 18 • vs. San. Diego State • 6 p.m. (CT)

TV: MLB Network

Radio: KTCU 88.7 FM/Sirius XM 84

Starting Pitcher: LHP Austin Krob

Saturday, Feb. 19 • vs. Cal • 2 p.m. (CT)

TV: N/A

Radio: GoFrogs.com/Sirius XM 84

Starting Pitcher: RHP Riley Cornelio

Sunday, Feb. 20 • vs. Houston • 11 a.m. (CT)

TV: N/A

Radio: KTCU 88.7 FM

Starting Pitcher: RHP Brett Walker

PREVIEW

(Check out Jamie’s interview with Kirk Saarloos for the skipper’s thoughts)

While many of the faces that dot the lineup are familiar, there is definitely a different feel to Frogball in 2022; Kirk Saarloos has introduced an energy to the program that felt lacking under the last leader. A California native, Saarloos definitely has that west coast vibe, and while he can be intense on the diamond, his players seem to have quickly adopted the freedom and looseness that disguises a ruthless competitor.

Picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 Conference preseason poll, TCU will lean heavily on its returning stars, led by unanimous All Conference selection Brayden Taylor and fellow All Conference nominee Austin Krob, the team’s ace heading into 2022.

Taylor will anchor a veteran infield and will start at third base, a position he occupied for the majority of his freshman campaign. Next to him will be Tommy Sacco, a veteran presence at short who struggled at the plate in 2021 but is a candidate to break out offensively this season. Gray Rodgers is back at second base, a guy who has been once of the better offensive players for stretches of his Fort Worth career and has anchored the middle of the defense alongside Sacco for what feels like forever. The only new face we expect to see on opening night is at first base, where former Texas A&M slugger Reed Spenrath has made his presence felt since arriving in Fort Worth by way of Cisco College. He is facing competition from freshman David Bishop, the most impressive newcomer this fall, and a guy with gap power and a lot of pop in his bat. It’s going to be hard to keep him out of the lineup, and he is currently listed as OR next to Spenrath at first.

The outfield is also expected to be chock full of familiar faces; last year’s late season MVP, Porter Brown, should be an everyday guy in 2022, and has worked hard to improve his defense and arm strength in order to lock down his role in left. Right field will likely be Luke Boyer’s to start; though he struggled on offense early as a freshman, he has the tools to contribute at a high level and will be given plenty of opportunities to continue his strong finish of 2021. Elijah Nunez, who drew record-setting numbers of walks as a freshman and was a defensive stalwart before a late-season swoon, is back in center and has big expectations surrounding his immense talent.

At catcher, the long-awaited debut of Kurtis Byrne as an every day guy may once again be put on hold, as Washington transfer Michael Petrie has made a big impression on those around the program and is expected to be the opening day starter behind the plate. Expect a platoon of Petrie and Byrne as the season progresses. Sam Thompson will start at DH this weekend, something that Frog fans have been longing to see. The redshirt freshman has been dealt a bad hand injury-wise since arriving on campus in 2020, but his potential at the plate is off the charts.

Talented newcomers abound across the lineup; Logan Maxwell is a freshman who will be pushing hard for time in the outfield with his elite athleticism and veteran approach at the plate. Hunter Teplansky is a switch hitter who can play multiple positions and could be the backup to either Sacco or Rodgers if either need a day off.

The weekend rotation is full of potential; Krob is a known quantity who should be a steady and impressive presence on Friday nights. Riley Cornelio beat out strong competition to earn the Saturday nod, and Oregon transfer Brett Walker is a big get for Saarloos and company to close out the weekend. Cam Brown will likely get the nod on Tuesdays, a sophomore who struggled some in his first season on campus but has all the tools and was incredibly impressive in the fall. He could well be the best midweek starter in the conference this fall, and maybe a top player in that role in the country. The bullpen returns River Ridings and Garrett Wright, two guys expected to take big steps forward this spring after strong 2021 campaigns. Marcelo Perez might be the biggest star and most versatile arm, and Arkansas transfer Caleb Bolden gives off Chuck King vibes as far as the amount of roles he can fill in relief.

There are many other names that will be pushing for ABs and innings all season long, and we will get to know them as they work their way into the rotation. There is no shortage of talent on this roster, that is one thing we know for sure.

(want to know more? check out the new Postgame Beers podcast by our friends the Lupton Drinking Club)

SERIES NOTABLES

• TCU and San Diego State were conference foes in the WAC (1997-01) and the Mountain West (2006-12).

• TCU holds a 24-13 series advantage.

• The Frogs and the Aztecs last met in the MWC tournament in Las Vegas in 2012.

• The Aztecs won the last meeting 12-11 on May 26.

• TCU is 6-1 all-time against Cal and 1-0 at a neutral site. All seven meetings have happened since 2017.

• TCU swept Cal at Lupton Stadium in 2020, winning 5-4, 3-0 and 6-1.

• TCU and Houston were conference foes in the SWC (1973-95) and in Conference USA (2002-05).

• Houston leads the all-time series 53-47-2.

• TCU and Houston last met on March 1, 2019 at Minute Maid Park with TCU winning 10-6.

• TCU is 3-0 against Houston since Saarloos’ arrival.