June 7, 2012

Freshmen step up to get TCU's season on track

The young players turn talk into action to play a key role in resurgence.

LOS ANGELES -- TCU had just made the short bus ride back to Fort Worth after the Horned Frogs' most troubling night of the season, a 4-3 10-inning loss at UT Arlington in which the Mavericks scored three unearned runs on five TCU errors.

The Frogs were 12-10 and seemingly going nowhere on March 27. Back at campus, the team met before departing the bus. But the Frogs' freshmen remained on the bus a little longer and met as a group, led by Kevin Cron, Derek Odell and Jerrick Suiter.

"We felt like we weren't pulling our weight," said Odell, who made two errors that night. "We know ourselves pretty well, so we felt like there was more we could be doing to help the team. So we talked about it."

They then turned that talk into a sizzling-hot finish to the regular season. The Frogs (40-20) are 28-10 since that night and the freshmen are a big reason for the resurgence.

TCU takes on UCLA (45-14) at 8 tonight at Jackie Robinson Stadium in a best-of-three Super Regional series, with freshman left-hander Brandon Finnegan (4-4), from Fort Worth Southwest High School, starting against Bruins right-hander Adam Plutko (10-3). The series winner advances to the College World Series in Omaha.

The Frogs won the College Station Regional starting five freshmen position players, and two freshman pitchers started three of the five games. The young players were not only integral to TCU's success this season, but they have given a preview of the team's bright future.

"I don't want to sound like a dad or anything, but I couldn't be any more proud," senior Brance Rivera said. "How they acted and played [in College Station]. It was like they were in my shoes, saying my season is not ending here. That was from all the starters to all the guys on the bench. It was awesome. We were having so much fun."

TCU's offense is having much more fun these days. On April 27 the team was hitting a paltry .243, the lowest in the Mountain West and near the bottom nationally. More vexing, it was nowhere near what coach Jim Schlossnagle's teams have averaged over his nine-year tenure. Schlossnagle's first TCU team in 2004 hit .294 and every year since the Frogs have hit over .300.

The Frogs' arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday hitting .272, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story. Since April 28, the Frogs are batting .321 with healthy contributions from four freshman bats. Odell has a team-high .413 average since April 28, just ahead of Cron (.398) and Suiter (.360). Suiter has been red hot since replacing the injured Jason Coats in left field.

Cron, who has five home runs and a team-high 26 RBIs since the turnaround, said the freshmen felt responsible for the slow start. The entire team, not just the freshmen, vowed to make the last 30 games better than the first 20, Odell said.

"The overall frustration we were experiencing then was a low, low point for the team," Odell said. "I guess it was a turning point. There was a lot of frustration that caused that meeting to come about."

Schlossnagle, perhaps bemused by some of the dismayed reaction to his once beleaguered team advancing to the super regionals for the third time in four years, tried to remind fans and media that TCU has had top-10 recruiting classes the past several years. He often said during the early struggles, "I like our team, I just don't like how we're playing right now."

"We have some pretty good players," Schlossnagle said sardonically. "We have helmets, we have bats and gloves, we have all that stuff. It's all about how you play. Six No. 1 seeds didn't advance out of their regional. When the Giants beat the Rangers [in the 2010 World Series] they didn't even have one all-star position player on the team. But they played better."

The Frogs and their freshmen are playing with momentum and their best baseball of the season. UCLA coach John Savage said both teams are playing with momentum but, he added, pitching has a say in that.

"The momentum stuff is only as good as your starting pitcher," Savage said. "What they did in College Station was very impressive. But if you're still playing you've got momentum."

Team leader Josh Elander, who will likely sign with the Atlanta Braves when the season is over after being drafted in the sixth round Tuesday, said TCU's freshmen aren't freshmen anymore.

"All those guys are blue-chip recruits," Elander said. "In baseball, confidence is a really scary thing, and when a guy is confident, he's going to be a great player. They're all playing with confidence and swagger. They're not out there playing like freshmen. They know they belong because they've been performing at a high level."

Stefan Stevenson


Twitter: @FollowtheFrogs

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