One of the lasting images of TCU’s 2010 College World Series run was the dominating force that was freshman pitcher Matt Purke.
Purke, who had turned down millions of dollars from the Texas Rangers the previous June, led a pitching staff that matched well with any in the country and took the Horned Frogs deep in the CWS in Omaha, Neb.
Following the left-handed Purke were right-handers Kyle Winkler and Steven Maxwell, each dominant at times in their own right, which gave TCU its best pitching staff in history.
Until 2014, that is. And it’s not even close.
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TCU’s staff, which leads the nation with a 2.14 ERA, not only compares arm for arm, but in most ways surpasses the ’10 staff tenfold.
Although bat regulations have changed to be more pitcher-friendly since 2011, the depth of the Frogs’ current staff is much stronger.
“They’re similar in that the frontline starting pitching is very good, all three of those [starters] are elite pitchers. Where the difference is is after that,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said.
“No disrespect to anybody on that team. [Tyler] Lockwood did a good job closing games for us that year. But it wasn’t nearly as dominant.”
TCU’s bullpen has been just as dominating as the starting pitching, which includes left-hander Brandon Finnegan (8-3), who starts Game 1 of the Fort Worth Super Regional against Pepperdine (42-16) ace right-hander Corey Miller (9-4) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Lupton Stadium.
TCU pitching coach Kirk Saarloos, who is in his second year with the Frogs, brushed off his influence on the staff’s success. But his demeanor and ability to relate as a former major league pitcher, and with a senior season at Cal State Fullerton in 2001 that was one of the greatest in college pitching history, has been immeasurable.
“Not that he wasn’t talented, but he was a self-made pitcher instead of being a guy who had ridiculous skills,” said Schlossnagle, who was an assistant at Tulane when Saarloos’ Titans eliminated Tulane in the 2001 CWS.
“He’s ridiculously intelligent. And he never drops the big league stuff on them. He has an appreciation for who they are as pitchers. He doesn’t try to coach Riley Ferrell the way he pitched, but it sure helps a guy like Preston Morrison to have a pitching coach like Kirk Saarloos. For a guy who doesn’t have a lot of coaching experience, he has a real good feel for how to teach and how to coach.”
Saarloos oversees a diverse staff, which has been one of the Frogs’ winning elements this season. Hard-throwing left-handers such as Finnegan, Tyler Alexander and relievers Alex Young and Travis Evans complement a finesse pitcher such as Morrison, who will start Sunday’s game.
“You have a first-round guy on Friday nights, followed by a righty [Morrison] who’s probably one of the best college pitchers over the first three years of his career who throws sidearm,” Saarloos said. “Then you go back to a left-hander [Alexander] that’s different than Brandon. A three-pitch mix guy who can really throw to both sides of the plate. It’s just a different look.”
And then there’s TCU’s unequaled bullpen, which can throw consistent heat with multiple arms, including right-handers Trey Teakell and closer Riley Ferrell, who has a TCU-record 14 saves and whose fastball often touches 100 mph. TCU’s bullpen-only ERA is 2.32.
“It’s fun to be able to look at your sheet every day and see, What matchup does this call for?” Saarloos said.
The pitchers came to Saarloos with natural talent, but they’ve also worked at taking advantage of those talents, and it has paid off big time so far, he said.
“It’s all about what those guys have done in the weight room, nutritionally, and the bullpen work for the last nine months,” Saarloos said. “It’s fun to see their hard work pay off.”
For Schlossnagle, the deep bullpen, even if it’s not necessary in a best-of-three series, is what separates this staff from 2010.
“Having guys like Young and Evans in the bullpen is a difference-maker. So we’re just deeper. We can do different things out of the bullpen when we have to do it,” he said.
As was evident in the Frogs’ extra-inning wins in last’s week regional, the bullpen is stocked six deep.
“[Leading the nation in ERA] is pretty cool. It takes an entire staff to get that,” said Morrison, who leads the team with a 1.24 ERA. “It’s not just a couple guys. We have a bunch of guys who can really pitch. You have guys behind you that if you get in trouble, they’ll come in and get a strikeout or get the outs and limit damage. The depth really speaks to it. We saw it in the fall. They pitched very well.”
It’s a close staff, too, Saarloos said. Together they’ve forged a staff-wide mentality that buoys their confidence from pitcher to pitcher.
“It’s as close of a pitching staff as I’ve ever been around,” Saarloos said. “They enjoy being around each other. Each guy passes the ball to the next guy.
“It’s a great place to pitch and we have guys who pitch to contact. But we have guys with swing-and-miss stuff, so when you put those two together — pitching to contact and swing-and-miss stuff to go with it, it’s a pretty good recipe for a pitching staff.”