Together, the TCU seniors — eight of them — posed for a photo the other day in front of the iconic The Road to Omaha sculpture at TD Ameritrade Park.
It reminded coach Jim Schlossnagle about how fortunate this Horned Frogs team had been, a blessed convergence of birthdates and baseball development arcs and seven-run rallies that led to a second consecutive trip to the College World Series.
Alas, it ended with a thud Friday night. Only one team gets to hear the harps and heavenly praises when the NCAA tournament is finally done.
Though thick with senior leadership and rich in pitching depth, the Frogs were bounced from the series the way that most teams eventually are, by a superior pitching performance, this time by Vanderbilt’s Walker Buehler.
Seniors in college baseball tend to be outliers. Often they are average players whose baseball careers will end at the conclusion of their fourth season. The other fortunate few have returned for a final college season in hopes of bettering their draft position.
Schlossnagle got lucky. His eight seniors who returned, for whatever their reasons, found a common motivating cause. They had tasted Omaha the year before, and they knew that a return trip was within reach.
Being one of eight College World Series teams, however, has never been a guarantee of recreating the statue’s victory scene.
LSU, for one, has one of college baseball’s thoroughbred pedigrees, with six NCAA championships. But the Tigers also have gone to Omaha and lost 11 times. Texas has gone 35 times but was sent home without the trophy 29 times.
LSU’s Paul Mainieri seemed to speak for many coaches after TCU eliminated the Tigers on Thursday night.
“You have hopes and aspirations, and then the finality of it is so quick and so cruel,” Mainieri said.
“It’s unfair,” he added, “that teams get judged at LSU depending on whether or not they won the last game.”
After his team’s 7-1 loss to Vandy on Friday, however, Schlossnagle refused to call it a sour day.
“There are no bad days in Omaha,” Schlossnagle said. “Some are just better than others.
“This one is still not a bad day, not anytime you’re finishing your season in the final four.”
The coach’s math is correct. For the second time in six seasons, the Frogs were among the final four teams still playing on the last weekend. The 2010 team also went that far.
Is reaching college baseball’s final four going to be enough?
As competitive as Schlossnagle is, it’s hard to imagine him being satisfied being ousted again before the championship series.
I remember calling Schlossnagle last June on the evening that the squad returned from Omaha. He was at his laptop, making travel plans to go scouting.
Perhaps that was the best lesson to come from the senior-laden 2015 team’s quest. They showed that a small private school can make it to college baseball’s showcase event two years in a row. They showed that they can make it to Omaha, send one of their pitchers to the real World Series in the same year, and still come back the next season to have eight more players drafted by the major leagues.
Some of us thought the 2010 season was just a bucket list moment, a way to finally check off the line that read, “Go to Rosenblatt Stadium and see TCU in the College World Series.” But supposedly once-in-a-lifetime TCU players like Matt Purke and Bryan Holaday were soon replaced by Brandon Finnegan and Kevin Cron, who this season were replaced by Preston Morrison and Evan Skoug.
The eight seniors made their mark. TCU won 51 games. They didn’t run from the bright College World Series spotlight, they embraced it.
Don’t feel sorry for Schlossnagle. He has had to replace future big-league stars before (Matt Carpenter, Jake Arrieta, Andrew Cashner, to name a few).
Mitchell Traver and Brian Howard, standing 6-foot-7 and 6-9, respectively, are expected to uniquely tower over next season’s starting pitching rotation.
With half as many seniors, Skoug, Dane Steinhagen, Nolan Brown, Connor Wanhanen, Elliott Barzilli and Evan Williams will help to refill the Frogs’ starting lineup.
Another final four finish and photo at the sculpture would be nice.
But if I know Schlossnagle, he wants the full frog pile.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697