There’s a slightly different vibe than usual at Lupton Stadium.
The TCU baseball team, which begins its second season in the Big 12 at 6:30 p.m. Friday against Jacksonville, has an urgency to get off to a fast start.
Of course, that’s always the hope. All teams want to put their best foot forward. But for the Horned Frogs, last season’s 0-6 start is a fresh reminder no matter how much they want to bury it.
And burying the 2013 season, when TCU missed the postseason for the first time in coach Jim Schlossnagle’s 10-year TCU tenure, is the Frogs’ hope in 2014.
A year ago, TCU was swept by Top 25 teams Ole Miss and Cal State Fullerton despite playing good baseball, especially at Mississippi.
The slow start worked against the Frogs in worse ways than their drop from the national rankings, after TCU had been been ranked in the top 20 in most preseason polls.
It wasn’t even the losing record that TCU struggled to overcome. It was the confidence-eating struggles through the first month and a half that defined the season. No one felt that more than designated hitter Jerrick Suiter, who went 0-for-10 despite crushing six balls that were caught at Ole Miss. He never fully recovered and finished batting .186 with just 10 RBIs.
“I think something that happened last year is we did play really well [early], we swung the bats really well, and that kind of built a little frustration and I think that might have had something to do with how our season started last year,” Suiter said.
“We all wanted that first win so badly, we’re trying so hard, it just built up a little frustration in every one of us.”
Suiter wasn’t the only one who struggled at the plate. Freshman outfielder Boomer White was the only Frog to bat over .300.
The tenor during practice has changed with the addition of associate head coach Bill Mosiello, who was hired last summer. He’s tasked with recharging a TCU offense that finished last in the Big 12 with a .246 batting average, 13 points lower than the next team.
TCU’s offense wasn’t the only issue. For much of the first month of last year, fielding or throwing miscues torpedoed games that TCU won in the past. It turned into a vicious cycle that kept the Frogs under .500 until May.
“He holds them to high standards,” Schlossnagle said. “He’s like me in that everything counts. How you take your lead, the mechanics of swinging the bat, to how you field a ground ball or how you back up a base. People call them the little things, but those are things that win and lose baseball games.”
Mosiello has added another no-nonsense voice to the daily preparation, which usually had fallen on Schlossnagle’s shoulders.
“He’s brought us a mentality we’ve never had before,” Schlossnagle said. “Usually, I’m the most intense guy on the field and that’s not the case anymore. Some days it still is. But it’s nice to have somebody else that’s not always the bad guy. I’m usually the bad guy. So that has been interesting.”
In the Big 12, which has six teams ranked in four national preseason polls, the margin for error, Schlossnagle said, is finite. Only six points separate the first four teams in the preseason poll of league coaches, with four teams receiving a first-place vote for the first time in league history.
TCU was picked to finish tied with Oklahoma State in second place behind Kansas State, last year’s regular-season champion. Texas was picked fourth, just one vote behind TCU and OSU.
Every mistake or missed opportunity can get you beat in the league. TCU, which finished 29-28 overall and 12-12 in the Big 12 last year, ranks in the top 23 of all four national preseason polls.
“Everybody is anxious to get going and ready to start off the season a lot better than we did last year,” said left-handed pitcher Brandon Finnegan, who will start Friday night. “We know we have the talent, we know we have the skill. Everything is there we just have to put it in the games. I can already tell it’s a completely different offense than last year. Last year we just didn’t play good baseball.”
Finnegan took the brunt of the bad baseball a year ago. He finished 0-8 despite an ERA of 3.18 with 86 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings. Right-hander Preston Morrison (7-3, 1.51 ERA) starts at 2 p.m. Saturday and freshman left-hander and Southlake Carroll ex Tyler Alexander makes his first start at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Schlossnagle doesn’t want his players thinking about last year’s start. In fact, the last time he spoke to the team about it was in September before fall practice.
“He said this was the last time we’re going to talk about it,” Boomer White said. “You don’t want to dwell on the past. You don’t want be scared something bad is going to happen again, that’s not the way you want to play the game.
“We’re always going to remember we didn’t play the way we wanted to. The school wasn’t thrilled with how we played last year, so that is a little bit of a motivation and drive. But we’re definitely not playing scared for that to not happen again. We want to come out and play the way we know how to and the way we wanted to last year. If we do that we think the sky is the limit.”
For some, especially offensive cornerstones such as Kevin Cron, Derek Odell, and Suiter, last year’s struggles serve as a quiet motivation to return the team to postseason glory. The Frogs had reached the Super Regionals three out of the previous four seasons before 2013.
“That feeling we had at the end of last year when we knew we weren’t getting into the tournament,” Suiter said. “That feeling, for the lack of a better word, sucked. So we’re just kind of keeping that bad feeling inside of us and keeping that in the back of our minds.”
Big 12 baseball: Restocked and loaded
Here’s a look at how the Big 12 could finish, with 2013 records:
1. Kansas State (45-19) Returning Big 12 Player of the Year Ross Kivett leads the defending champ Wildcats, who return a combined 14 juniors and seniors. Kivett leads a powerful offense that boasts four of the league’s top five active career leaders in batting average: Austin Fisher (.349), Kivett (.323), Blair DeBord (.308) and Shane Conlon (.308).
2. TCU (29-28) An excellent pitching staff led by Brandon Finnegan, Preston Morrison and relievers Riley Ferrell and Alex Young should keep the Frogs in most games. If TCU can get off to a good start offensively, the effect could be as positive as last year’s slow start was negative.
3. Texas (27-24) Although the Longhorns finished in last place with a 7-17 record, they still finished over .500 overall and return a deep, talented and experienced pitching staff, plus seven position starters, including Mark Payton, who tops the active Big 12 leaders in triples, total bases and walks. Starters Dillon Peters, Nathan Thornhill and Parker French all return with ERAs under 2.70.
4. Oklahoma State (41-19) Eight All-Big 12 players return, including pitchers Tyler Nurdin (Fort Worth Paschal grad) and Vince Wheeland, both of whom had sub-2.00 ERAs. Tanner Krietemeier and Zach Fish return to the middle of the Cowboys’ lineup, where they helped OSU rank first or second in the Big 12 in six offensive stats.
5. West Virginia (33-26) The Mountaineers surprised some with a solid showing in last year’s Big 12 tournament. Second-year coach and former TCU assistant Randy Mazey’s squad shouldn’t sneak up on many this season, especially with 2013 Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Harrison Musgrave back on the mound.
6. Oklahoma (43-21) First-year coach Pete Hughes takes over for Sunny Golloway, who left for Auburn after leading the Sooners to the Big 12 tournament title and a Super Regional berth in 2013. OU lost five everyday starters and three starting pitchers but return catcher Anthony Hermelyn, outfielder Craig Aikin and second baseman Hector Lorenzana.
7. Baylor (27-28) The Bears have to replace longtime offensive fixtures in Nathan Orf, Cal Towey, and Jake Miller. Grayson Porter (29 RBI), Lawton Langford (.278) and Adam Toth (27 runs) will have to step up and fill the void at the plate.
8. Texas Tech (26-30) Second-year coach Tim Tadlock returns eight position players with at least 20 starts in 2013, along with eight pitchers who made starts. Leading hitter Jake Barrios returns after leading the Red Raiders with a .297 batting average and 48 RBI.
9. Kansas (34-24) The Jayhawks were picked last by league coaches despite a respectable finish a year ago when they went 3-1 at the Big 12 tournament. Right-hander Jordan Piche, the 2013 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, returns after going 6-4 with 12 saves in 32 relief appearances.