June 6, 2012

TCU's talented, deep baseball roster took time to emerge

So you're wondering how you missed this TCU baseball team, right? Surprised the Horned Frogs are one of 16 teams still playing in the NCAA super regionals?

So you're wondering how you missed this TCU baseball team, right? Surprised the Horned Frogs are one of 16 teams still playing in the NCAA super regionals?

Don't be surprised. The Frogs didn't escape the College Station Regional with luck or by chance. They're talented and deep, perhaps deeper than the 2010 team that reached the school's first College World Series.

True, this team has no undeniable stars such as Matt Purke or Bryan Holaday, but it has players with similar or better numbers and, like that 2010 team, it has grit and determination to spare.

In your defense, this year's Frogs had not exactly shown many reasons to expect a trip to Omaha during the first half of the season. The Frogs (40-20) face No. 2 national seed UCLA (45-14) in a best-of-three series beginning at 8 p.m. Friday at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles.

Injuries, inexperience and a few bad stretches kept TCU from garnering much acclaim early, and its No. 15 preseason ranking eventually evaporated. But a funny thing happened while no one was paying attention. The Frogs got healthy, a crop of talented freshmen hit their stride, and TCU started winning.

If you're just joining the bandwagon, here's a look at how this season unfolded and what you missed on the ride to LA.

Limping out of the gate: Injuries to starters such as third baseman Jantzen Witte, Brance Rivera and Kevin Cron were partly responsible for a 2-6 start. The defense took a hit early, including a five-error game that allowed six unearned runs in an 11-10 loss at Cal State Fullerton on Feb. 26.

Nine-game winning streak: After losing four in a row, TCU reeled off its first of two season-high nine-game winning streaks to improve to 11-6. Jason Coats homered twice and drove in five RBIs against UNLV on March 17 as the Frogs began Mountain West play with a three-game sweep of the Rebels.

Midseason malaise: The hot streak fizzled over a two-week stretch when the team went 4-6 and lost in various maddening ways. Five errors at Texas State on March 20. Blown ninth-inning lead at New Mexico on March 23. Three unearned runs in a 4-3, 10-inning loss at UT Arlington on March 27.

"Everyone in the lineup is subject to change," an incensed coach Jim Schlossnagle fumed April 5 after the Frogs allowed two ninth-inning runs in a loss to UNC Wilmington, TCU's third consecutive loss and fifth in seven games. "I'm trying everything. Fun is winning."

Witte's return: Jantzen Witte returned to the lineup for good March 25 after missing the first 18 games recovering from January hip surgery. The junior from Arlington Martin High School went 6 for 12 with two RBIs and two runs scored in his first three games back in the everyday lineup.

Morrison steps up: Freshman pitcher Preston Morrison didn't expect to start this season, but he stepped up. He went 8 2/3 innings in his first career start April 7 and improved to 4-0. It was the second straight dominating pitching performance for the Frogs after Andrew Mitchell struck out 10 the previous day to start the Frogs' second nine-game winning streak.

Cron in the zone: Freshman Kevin Cron, who hit 28 home runs as a senior at Phoenix-area Mountain Pointe High School, hit his first homer for TCU in a 5-1 victory against UTA. "It feels pretty good; feels even better that it came in a win," Cron said after the game. "As long as I was hitting the ball I didn't really care [about homering]."

Scharf and Allen: The season could have taken an ugly turn had it not been for the Frogs' bullpen. Two junior college transfers -- Justin Scharf and Kevin Allen -- were steady hands, escaping jams, holding leads and preserving wins through the regular season. Scharf didn't allow a run in a 13 2/3-inning, 13-game stretch in March. Allen didn't allow an earned run in his first 17 2/3 innings. Scharf added another streak of 10 innings in seven appearances without allowing a run.

Finishing strong: A 12-2 finish to the regular season had the Frogs feeling good headed into the Mountain West tournament. Freshman second baseman Derek Odell drove in a game-winning run in the ninth to beat Oklahoma on May 1, and freshman Brandon Finnegan, from Fort Worth Southwest High School, threw seven shutout innings in a 1-0 victory at Oklahoma two weeks later. The Sooners, a super regional team this year, had beaten the Frogs the previous eight times.

Milestone day for Coats: Outfielder Jason Coats collected his 300th career hit and 200th career RBI in a 6-1 victory at Air Force on May 13.

Coats' college career cut short: Coats' season and college career were agonizingly cut short in the regular-season finale after injuring his knee running to first on a day TCU saluted its seniors. Coats finished as TCU's all-time leader in at-bats and doubles and second in hits and RBIs. He has remained in uniform and in the dugout through the postseason.

Mountain West letdown: TCU held on after squandering a 10-run lead in the ninth inning against San Diego State in the first game of the Frogs' last Mountain West tournament. After the Aztecs went ahead 15-14 with a jaw-dropping 11-run rally in the top of the ninth, TCU scored twice to win. Despite a tremendous showing by freshmen Odell, Cron and Jerrick Suiter, the pitching struggled in the offense-friendly UNLV ballpark and the Frogs went 1-2.

Four to remember: Down 9-6 in the fifth inning Saturday in a College Station Regional elimination game against Dayton, the Frog' offense exploded for seven runs in the sixth to take the lead. They kept adding and adding to their lead, beating the Flyers 28-12 on 23 hits, including five doubles and four home runs. The next day TCU eliminated host Texas A&M 10-2 on 12 more hits and Stefan Crichton's first career complete game. That night, Finnegan pitched a career-long 7 1/3 innings and earned the victory against Ole Miss to force a Monday rematch.

On Monday, Witte and Josh Elander homered and Scharf held the Rebels to one run over the final 4 2/3 innings to earn the win as TCU prevailed 7-4 to earn a trip to Los Angeles.

Stefan Stevenson


Twitter: @FollowtheFrogs

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