Gil LeBreton

Resilient TCU manages dramatic turnaround against NC State

TCU players celebrate Monday night’s dramatic 9-8 comeback victory over North Carolina State to advance to the Super Regionals.
TCU players celebrate Monday night’s dramatic 9-8 comeback victory over North Carolina State to advance to the Super Regionals. Star-Telegram

To fully weigh the ecstasy that engulfed TCU players and fans Monday night, you must first attest to the agony.

The Horned Frogs trailed North Carolina State 8-1 with two outs in the eighth inning. Only four outs remained in what was supposed to be a dream season, a Toad to Omaha season, for a team that seemed to have it all.

At that desperate point, three Wolfpack pitchers had silenced the TCU bats. A four-run meltdown in the top of the eighth had widened the deficit. The Lupton Stadium crowd had already come to its feet to wish pitcher Riley Ferrell, knocked from the box, a final farewell.

But just when NC State, a 15-14 team in Atlantic Coast Conference play during the regular season, appeared poised to gallop into the NCAA baseball tournament’s Super Regional round, the Wolfpack’s ride turned into a pumpkin.

The improbable comeback began with back-to-back errors by NC State second baseman Ryne Willard. Then a walk. A single by TCU’s Garrett Crain. Then another walk. A balk. Another walk.

A two-run single by Jeremie Fagnan. Another error. A passed ball. Another walk.

When the inning ended, the North Carolina State lead had been cut to 8-7. The Frogs tied it in the ninth on a single, a bunt, another balk and another passed ball.

And in the bottom of the 10th, Elliott Barzilli bounced a single through a drawn-in infield to score Evan Williams with the winning run.

The resilient Frogs, once despondent but now delirious, raced from the dugout and mobbed Barzilli. The Lupton crowd, nearly all of whom had loyally remained, roared and hugged and blinked in disbelief.

Teams often rally for big numbers in the NCAA tournament. The other team sometimes runs out of pitchers. A visiting team offers a meek surrender.

But seldom does a team that looked, for all intents and purposes, like a legitimate threat for Omaha unravel the way that North Carolina State did.

"How do you begin to describe that?" TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle asked, as he began his postgame press conference.

Thinking back, he said he was reminded of Matt Curry’s dramatic grand slam that helped to beat Florida State in the 2010 College World Series. That homer also came in the eighth and capped an eight-run TCU rally.

But this was different, Schlossnagle said.

"Down 8-1, six outs to go, you’re about as dead in the water as you can be," the coach said.

To underscore the kind of frustrating night it had been for TCU, the Frogs struck out 13 times, their most in more than two months.

"One of the things we talked about in our scouting reports, though," Schlossnagle said, "was that there were a number of good arms in that [NC State] bullpen. But there were also a lot of walks.

"To come back from 8-1, most teams are not going to do it with just hitting."

Five of the Frogs’ seven walks came in the final three innings. The Wolfpack was charged with six errors.

But it was TCU that appeared to be unraveling in the top half of that eighth inning. Schlossnagle sent in All-America Ferrell to keep the game within reach, and Ferrell had slipped fielding a bunt and then struggled to find the strike zone. Schlossnagle eventually made the emotional decision to lift him.

"It was really, really hard for me to do that," Schlossnagle said. "I didn’t want that to be his last time pitching for TCU.

"He’s saved us so many times. He’s the best closer that ever stepped on this campus."

In so many ways, though, Ferrell’s struggles mirrored the TCU frustrations in this NCAA regional. Ferrell had allowed the ninth-inning home run that cost the Frogs the first game against NC State, forcing TCU to battle back through the losers bracket.

As the bottom of the eighth inning began Monday night, the Frogs seemed to be wearied from the climb.

They had seemed to have it all.

Senior leadership. Tournament experience. A balanced and athletic lineup. And maybe as deep and talented a pitching staff as Schlossnagle has ever had.

From dead in the water, though, they would soon be dancing in the outfield.

Agony to ecstasy. Toads, halfway to Omaha.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

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