OMAHA, Neb. — The last time TCU made it to Omaha, the upstart Horned Frogs became the local favorite. The city embraced the team, a newcomer to the field in 2010, and rooted for TCU stars such as Bryan Holaday, Matt Curry and Matt Purke.TCU did its best to cultivate the following, going 3-2 and losing to UCLA in the final game of its bracket, a win away from the best-of-three championship series.Four years later, the Frogs and No. 3 Virginia are the only national seeds still playing. No. 7 national seed TCU, which opens against Big 12 rival Texas Tech at 2 p.m. today at TD Ameritrade Park, is no longer considered the underdog.In fact, in the 2014 field of eight teams, no team stands out as a heavy favorite, but many expect TCU to do well and challenge for the right to play in the championship series, which begins June 23. TCU right-hander Preston Morrison (9-4), the Big 12 pitcher of the year, will start against Tech lefty Chris Sadberry (5-3).The Frogs (47-16) will have to get past Texas Tech (45-19), Virginia (49-14) and Ole Miss (46-19) to do it, but here are five reasons why TCU baseball could be playing for its first national title.Starting pitchingIn a double-elimination bracket such as this, where each team, win or lose, gets a day off between games, starting pitching depth becomes less important. But strong starts and quality depth on the mound can go a long way. TCU leads the nation with a 2.19 ERA, and starters Preston Morrison, Brandon Finnegan, Tyler Alexander and Jordan Kipper have started all but three games. They’ll each get a chance to start if TCU makes a deep run.Timely hittingFor an offense such as TCU’s, timely hitting becomes integral. For the most part, since April 1, the Frogs have done that while winning 32 of 36 games. But the Frogs left 33 runners on base during their Super Regional win over Pepperdine and had to rely on a game-tying double and a suicide squeeze in the ninth inning of Game 3 to squeak out the victory. This has been a vexing issue for much of the season, including 39 runners stranded in the team’s three-game regional sweep. Pitching has bailed them out most nights, but in the CWS, where runs can be rare, missed opportunities can haunt you.BullpenTCU coach Jim Schlossnagle called pitcher Trey Teakell the team’s MVP more than a month ago, and for good reason. Teakell (6-0, two saves) gives the Frogs a steady hand out of the bullpen who can come in at any moment — in the second inning for long relief if a starter struggles, or he can close a game out for the final two or three innings if closer Riley Ferrell isn’t available. Ferrell has a TCU record 15 saves and provides the Frogs with a big shutdown presence late in games. Often teams hope to knock out a starter early to get to a shaky bullpen. That’s not the case against the Frogs, whose bullpen has allowed only two runs in 28 1/3 postseason innings for an 0.64 ERA.DefenseTCU is built on pitching and defense, and the two work hand in hand. The Frogs’ pitching philosophy is to fill the zone and pitch to contact, then rely on a solid defense to make the routine plays. TCU ranks 11th nationally with a .978 fielding percentage. Only Virginia (.982) and Texas Tech (.981) rank higher among CWS teams. Shortstop Keaton Jones, who joined the team three years ago as a walk-on pitcher, has been as sure-handed as they come with only 13 errors. Derek Odell (12 errors) made the switch from second to third base this season and has had a penchant for making defensive gems. Second baseman Garrett Crain has only committed two errors, and the outfield starters (Boomer White, Cody Jones and Dylan Fitzgerald) have combined for only four errors all season.CoachingTCU’s coaching staff can’t claim CWS experience superiority, especially with legends such as Texas’ Augie Garrido and UC Irvine’s Mike Gillespie in the field. But Schlossnagle, who led the Frogs to the 2010 CWS, also was an assistant with Tulane when it earned a berth in 2001. TCU pitching coach Kirk Saarloos is making his first appearance as a coach, but in the 2001 series he was a star pitcher for Cal State Fullerton, the team that eliminated Schlossnagle and Tulane. TCU hitting coach Bill Mosiello was an assistant for Garrido at Cal State Fullerton when the Titans advanced to the 1992 CWS championship game.
Stefan Stevenson 817-390-7760 Twitter: @StevensonFWST