TCU’s Dylan Fitzgerald had never been more focused in his life.
It was the top of the ninth on Monday. Fitzgerald was at the plate with teammates on first and second and no outs. The Horned Frogs trailed Pepperdine by a run and were down to their final three outs.
As expected, Fitzgerald showed bunt immediately as TCU hoped to move Garrett Crain — who represented the all-important tying run — over to third base. But Fitz, as his coaches and teammates call him, failed on his bunt attempt and was quickly in an 0-2 hole.
“I’ve never had that much focus in an at-bat in my life,” Fitz said from the team’s hotel lobby after the Horned Frogs’ first practice in Omaha on Thursday afternoon. “After that, I thought, I have to do something here. I cannot go down striking out or else I’ll never forgive myself.
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“If I don’t move them over then I have to pray that Keaton [Jones] gets a hit or [Kyle] Bacak gets a hit to even tie the game since I didn’t get the bunt down,” he lamented. “When you’re 0-2 it’s really scary, especially with what was on the line.”
Fitzgerald battled, fouling off another pitch and working the count to 2-2.
“I’d been seeing the ball really well that day. When I’m seeing the ball well I’m really confident and that obviously helps,” he said. “I got that pitch and put a little swing on it.”
Fitzgerald pulled a double to right field to score Crain for the tying run. Jerrick Suiter later scored the winning run on a suicide squeeze play to earn TCU’s second College World Series berth. The Frogs (47-16) open against Texas Tech (45-19) at 2 p.m. Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park.
Later, during the postgame press conference, TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle joked that he sure was happy Fitzgerald didn’t get the bunt down.
“I was just hoping he didn’t hit into a double play and that he’d at least be able to advance the runner to third base with one out so we could at least get the tying run in,” Schlossnagle said Thursday. “He had a great at-bat. He stayed on a breaking ball.”
TCU third base coach Bill Mosiello was hesitant to call for the bunt in the first place. His instincts told him to let Fitzgerald swing away. But playing the percentages with the season on the line called for a bunt.
“I just didn’t want to not have you bunt and then have the whole world question my tactics,” Mosiello told Fitzgerald. “Why would you not have the guy move them over?”
Fitzgerald, who has started all but three games this season, is tied with Boomer White for second on the team with a .318 batting average. Garrett Crain leads the team with a .335 average. Fitzgerald is tied with Kevin Cron for the team lead in slugging percentage at .438.
It’s a marked improvement for the senior who transferred from Cypress (Calif.) Junior College two years ago. He started 23 games last season but hit just .221 with six RBIs in a mostly reserve role.
Fitzgerald almost didn’t end up at TCU. Former TCU assistant coach Tony Vitello was recruiting another player at Cypress College when Fitzgerald caught his eye. Vitello e-mailed him to express interest, but Fitzgerald was already committed to transfer to Maryland.
“I went on a recruiting trip and spent a weekend there. I had committed,” Fitzgerald said. “Then things kind of got weird. I didn’t know how much scholarship I was getting. The coach wasn’t responding to my texts. It was a weird situation.”
Before long, Fitzgerald learned that coach Erik Bakich had left Maryland to take the head coaching job at Michigan. Fitzgerald wasn’t interested in playing at Michigan. He emailed Vitello to ask if the Frogs still had a spot for him. They did.
Fitzgerald and his mom showed up a couple weeks before school started in August 2012. Schlossnagle drove them around campus.
“Sight unseen. I’d never taken a trip to TCU. Two or three weeks before school started I decided to come here,” Fitzgerald said, who had only watched TCU’s recruiting video and looked up a few pictures online. “I have three cousins, all girls, who went to Baylor and they all told me TCU was a real nice school.”
It didn’t take long for him to realize that he had landed at the right place. Fitzgerald friended shortstop Keaton Jones, who is from Laguna Beach, Calif., on Facebook before arriving at TCU. The two had never met.
“The people here are so nice. I learned that right away. I fell in love with it immediately,” he said. “I’m not the shyest guy. I kind of throw myself out there. It wasn’t too hard. The guys were all real nice. Baseball guys are baseball guys wherever you go.”
Fitzgerald has been an integral part of TCU’s offense in 2014, giving them a strong bat in the No. 7 hole in the lineup. He’s second on the team with 74 hits and fourth with 33 RBIs.
“One of the best things about Dylan is a lot of the balls he hits in games he never hits in batting practice,” Schlossnagle said. “His best swings are in games. There’s a lot of players you coach that their best swings are in batting practice and you don’t ever see those good swings in games. He’s the opposite.”