Even before TCU baseball lost slugger Luken Baker to season-ending surgery, the Horned Frogs' offense was struggling to score runs. Losing their prime offensive force — for the second consecutive season, by the way — seemed like an impossible obstacle to overcome.
TCU (27-18, 8-9 in the Big 12) still has a lot of work to do, of course, beginning with a three-game Big 12 Conference series against West Virginia (25-21, 7-11) on Friday at Lupton Stadium, but so far the power vacuum left in Baker's absence has been filled with big contributions from others in the lineup.
Graduate student A.J. Balta, who joined TCU for his final eligible season after playing and graduating from Oregon, has been an indispensable bat in the offense. Josh Watson, the Arlington Martin graduate who made headlines as a freshman two years ago, has put together a very impressive junior season, especially since the loss of Baker. Conner Wanhanen was tasked with replacing Baker at first base and has admirably filled in with a .431 on-base percentage, four stolen bases and steady defense.
The Frogs have seven regular-season games remaining, including a non-conference game at Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday and a three-game series to close it out against No. 17 Texas beginning Thursday in Austin.
Since losing Baker, seven TCU players have at least five RBIs in the past 13 games, including Balta, who leads the team with 42 RBIs, including 16 during the stretch. The Frogs have hits nine homers in the past 13 games, including three from Watson, who is one shy of tying Baker for the team lead.
"It makes it a lot more fun when you have the entire team doing what they’re supposed to be doing," Balta said. "The way that everyone is meshing right now is what it looks like."
The pitching staff has also stepped up since ace Jared Janczak was lost to season-ending surgery. Jake Eissler and Haylen Green have excelled in starting roles and Cal Coughlin and Augie Mihlbauer have combined to hold opponents to four runs over 14 2/3 innings The Horned Frogs, who are still facing long postseason odds at No. 66 in the latest RPI rankings, can improve their standing the final week of the regular season. Coughlin said it took a while for the team to start playing up to its potential.
"Anyone who steps out there wants to do their job," Coughlin said. "[Over time] maybe you get comfortable being yourself in this uniform. It's about finding where you're at your best out there. For me, it’s pitching with some intent and a little bit of aggression. It does take time."
TCU vs. West Virginia
(at Lupton Stadium)
Game 1: 6:30 p.m. Friday
Game 2: 4 p.m. Saturday (FSSW)
Game 3: 1 p.m. Sunday