Power against power, North Carolina State won and TCU lost.
Designated hitter Chance Shepard put his bat on a 96 mph fastball from TCU’s elite closer and drove it to straightaway center field for a two-run home run in the ninth inning that gave the Wolfpack an electrifying 5-4 victory Saturday night in a winner’s bracket game at the Fort Worth Regional.
The blast over the fence 395 feet away followed a two-out walk issued by TCU’s Riley Ferrell, who failed to close a game for the second time in as many appearances — the first two blown chances in the career of the Horned Frogs’ record holder in saves.
“It was the best moment of my life,” Shepard said.
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It was probably no exaggeration. In an emotionally charged atmosphere before 4,009 fans at Lupton Stadium, the top-seeded Horned Frogs and No. 2 Wolfpack matched their aces and played every pitch with intensity.
TCU rallied from a 3-1 deficit with a home run and an RBI single, led on a sacrifice fly in the seventh, but lost for only the second time in 42 games this year with a lead after seven innings.
But N.C. State, boasting 51 home runs, got its biggest one of the season from Shepard, a sophomore right-handed hitter who came in with a .218 average but five home runs. He got a 1-1 fastball and met it squarely.
“Ultra-competitive, great atmosphere,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “Tough for us to come out on the short end.”
N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said, “You won’t find a better game than that in college baseball. Both teams played their hearts out.”
But Schlossnagle added, “We’ll flush it. Be ready to go tomorrow.”
The Horned Frogs (44-12) have to be. They face a loser’s bracket game at 2:30 Sunday against Stony Brook, which won an elimination game earlier Saturday on its own heroic two-run home run against Sacred Heart.
The TCU-Stony Brook winner will play N.C. State at 7 Sunday. If N.C. State wins that game, it advances to a Super Regional series. TCU or Stony Brook would have to win Sunday night to force a championship game Monday.
Tyler Alexander (5-2, 2.87), a sophomore left-hander from Southlake Carroll, will start for TCU against Stony Brook. He is 1-0 with a 4.11 ERA in three postseason starts.
“And if we don’t use Alex Young in the first game, then he’d probably throw the second,” Schlossnagle said. “There is no rotation. It’s a one-game season.”
Schlossnagle reiterated his confidence in Ferrell, who walked three and threw two wild pitches in his previous apperance, a blown save 10 days ago at the Big 12 tournament against Baylor.
“He pitched a thousand times better than he did in the conference tournament,” Schlossnagle said. “He walked Willard, and Shepard caught up to a 96 mph fastball. It was down. I haven’t seen the video – I don’t know if it was middle. Considering what he just came off of, against Baylor, where he couldn’t find the plate, I thought he did great. Especially to get 2-0 on the leadoff hitter, he came right back and threw three of the next four for strikes. Full confidence in Riley. He’s given up two extra-base hits the whole season. Two homers.”
Ferrell was trying to nail down a victory for TCU ace Preston Morrison, who matched a career high with 10 strikeouts in going eight innings. He threw 110 pitches, walked two and gave up two earned runs.
He was victimized in the fourth inning when Garrett Crain’s error resulted in an unturned double play that would have left the bases empty with two outs in a scoreless game.
And then Morrison made things tough on himself.
He had .227-hitting third baseman Joe Dunand down 0-2 after two failed bunt attempts, but lost him to a walk on nine pitches, loading the bases with no outs.
Ryne Willard hit a bouncing ball just inside the bag at third base for a two-run double and a 2-1 lead. Then a wild pitch scored Dunand for a 3-1 lead.
“Everybody makes errors. It just so happened that mine gave up three runs,” Crain said. “I flushed it as soon as I could.”
The Horned Frogs limited the damage. Derek Odell fielded a hard ground ball at third base and threw home for the first out, a collision at the plate between TCU’s 200-pound catcher, Evan Skoug, and Willard, a 180-pound second baseman.
Skoug made a physical tag and held it, stepping over the runner toward the mound. Willard hopped up annoyed, and the home plate umpire stepped between him and Skoug. The players and coaches made moves toward the plate, emotions runnng high.
Morrison got out of the inning with a double play, but a hard slide at second base, perhaps in retaliation, prompted Schlossnagle and pitching coach Kirk Saarloos into an exchange of words with N.C. State coach Elliott Avent.
TCU got back within 3-2 on Jeremie Fagnan’s leadoff home run in the fourth.
Crain led off the sixth inning with a triple and scored on Cody Jones’ single to tie the game.
Crain’s sacrifice fly in the seventh inning scored Dane Steinhagen, who led off the inning with a single.
“Garrett showed the kind of character he has,” Schlossnagle said. “Made an error, and then he’s the guy that gets us back in the game with the triple and then driving in the go-ahead run, what was the go-ahead run at the time.”
Schlossnagle is counting on team-wide character on Sunday.
“We’ll be ready to go tomorrow,” he said. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407