TCU feels confident about winning Big 12 baseball tournament, saving season

All the frustration, anguish and empty feeling in the gut would vanish for Kevin Cron.

If TCU can carry the feel-good momentum it has been riding for the last several weeks and win the Big 12 tournament, Cron and his Horned Frogs teammates would put much of the 2013 season in the dustbin of history and move on as if it never happened.

All the 0 for 4s, the shutouts, the feeble nights at the plate? A big week at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in downtown Oklahoma City and those agonizing footnotes will mean nothing to any of them, especially Cron, who has been the poster child for the Frogs’ struggling offense in 2013.

Seventh-seeded TCU (28-26), which opens its first Big 12 tournament against second-seed Oklahoma State (39-14) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, must win the tournament or its season is over. The tournament was delayed a day and switched to a pool-play style format after Monday’s tornado outbreak in the Oklahoma City area. Two pools of four teams will play three games and the teams with the best record meet in the championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Frogs’ string of nine consecutive postseason berths under coach Jim Schlossnagle would end, and those recent good vibes will turn sour.

“We obviously started off really rocky, myself included — especially myself,” said Cron, who is batting .212 with 20 RBIs. Those numbers may seem low but are nothing compared to the depths he crept out of after starting 4 for 49 with five RBIs in TCU’s first 12 games.

“But it all comes down to how you play down the stretch in May,” he added. “Last year, we definitely hit our stride in May going into the regional. This year, we’ve really hit our stride, and we’re playing our brand of baseball that kind of defines TCU.”

Of course, Cron isn’t the only big piece of the offense that has helped TCU hit a Big 12-low .247. Derek Odell and Jerrick Suiter have also struggled offensively after coming on strong during the Frogs’ run to the Super Regionals a year ago.

TCU’s pitching and defense — the defining characteristics of the program — are probably better, however, Schlossnagle said. Although the team hopes its recent offensive upswing continues to flourish, TCU undoubtedly must rely on its two strengths this week.

“I think we can go on the same run, but it’s going to be based more on pitching and defense probably than it will be swinging the bat and hitting a bunch of home runs,” Schlossnagle said. “There’s better pitching in this tournament than we saw in the regional last year.”

TCU’s run through the College Station Regional after losing its opener could also give the team some added backbone headed into another elimination scenario. The tournament’s top seeds — Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and perhaps even surprise West Virginia — have likely already clinched at-large berths in the NCAA tournament. Those teams will have much less on the line.

Those top teams, for example, may not feel compelled to turn around a staff ace on short rest. TCU, along with Baylor, Kansas and Texas Tech, all need to win the tournament to earn a postseason berth. TCU has the best and, arguably, deepest pitching staff in the league, and has multiple pitching options if it reaches the championship.

“It started last year, where we peaked at the right time,” third baseman Jantzen Witte said. “We flipped the switch, for whatever reason, so we’re hoping to do that again this year. Right now, we feel really confident. Our pitching is still lights-out and [offensively] everybody is starting to come around.”

TCU right-hander Preston Morrison (7-3), who will start Thursday, said despite being in a must-win situation, he’d rather be playing well now, than starting hot and then limping into the league tournament.

“You wish you were 48-8, but we’d rather be hot now than hot early and cooling off right now,” he said. “We definitely are playing our best baseball right now and that’s a good thing.”

The win-or-go-home reality doesn’t have to be crippling, as the Frogs players proved last year in College Station. In fact, Cron said, it can free up a hitter who feels he has nothing more to lose. In Cron’s case, a strong tournament would also help bury his tormenting regular season.

“It allows you just to say there’s no turning back; there’s nothing to lose,” he said. “You just play to have fun and play to win, obviously. Last year, we were in the regional and we were in the same position and it honestly freed us up a little bit to just play and have fun with it because we never know when our last game is going to be.

“But if we keep playing well and keep playing loose, then we’ll give ourselves the best opportunity to have success and go on forward.”

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