Gil LeBreton

TCU Horned Frogs found groove, regained their Omaha dream

Truth be told, there was a point during the Horned Frogs baseball season when TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle just wanted his team to get to play a few more games.

Inconsistency had shadowed the Frogs. Youth had made an example of them.

A 6-6 swoon near the early part of May had left TCU wondering what kind of contender they really were.

“There were times during the season,” Schlossnagle recalled, “when I remember talking to the coaches and saying, ‘Somehow, we’ve got to get this team into a regional, just so they can get some postseason experience.’ 

From modest expectations, however, a familiar dream stirred.

The bats awoke. The pitchers seized the challenge.

TCU kept winning. All the way to Omaha.

For the second year in a row, TCU and the Texas Aggies battled deep into the night Sunday. But the clock never did strike midnight for the Horned Frogs.

TCU took advantage of a costly error by Aggies third baseman Boomer White and scored three times in the seventh inning to defeat A&M 4-1 in Game 3 of the College Station Super Regional. The Frogs, who rebounded from their midseason identity crisis and won 14 of their last 16 games, are headed to the College World Series for the third year in a row.

Junior right-hander Brian Howard, standing 6 feet, 9 inches tall, pitched like a giant. After a semi-shaky first inning — the inning when the Aggies typically work their mischief — Howard settled down and allowed only one hit, an infield single, over the next six innings.

A&M’s Turner Larkins was equally run-stingy. But when TCU’s Josh Watson singled to open the fifth, the fourth inning in a row that Larkins had allowed the leadoff hitter to get on, the Frogs were able to scratch for a tying run.

Against Aggies reliever Andrew Vinson, the Frogs then tacked on three more runs in the seventh inning, despite getting just one hit, to take the lead.

Earlier in the best-of-three Super Regional, Schlossnagle had reiterated the time-honored winning formula.

“Pitching, defense, timely hitting,” he said.

On Sunday night, two out of three staked the Frogs to a victory. Timely hits -- for either team -- simply weren’t to be found.

“The story of the night is Brian Howard,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. “Anytime there was a pitch to be made, he made it.”

History tells us that TCU seldom has taken the easier path in these NCAA Tournament things. Memorable near-elimination experiences which turned into regional victories over Sam Houston State and North Carolina State come to mind.

In all three of the Frogs’ three most recent Super Regionals, TCU has trailed during the deciding Game 3.

A two-run rally in the ninth inning lifted the Frogs over Pepperdine 6-5 and punched TCU’s ticket for the 2014 College World Series.

A year later, the Aggies and Frogs battled 16 innings and nearly six hours in Fort Worth, before TCU won 5-4.

“And here we are,” Schlossnagle said on the eve of this latest Game 3 finale. “We’re not counting anything. We know how good the Aggies are.”

Howard allowed only two hits, both singles, in his seven innings. He walked only two and struck out eight. He modestly agreed afterwards that it was the game of his life.

“Yes, that was a lot of fun,” Howard said, “and it came against an incredible baseball team with a ton of talent on it.”

Howard’s only troublesome inning was the first. The junior from St. Louis retired 16 of the final 17 Aggies he faced.

“I guess I got a little bit of the pregame hype out of my system,” he said.

When the Frogs finally got their groove back this season, Howard became their most consistent starter.

And Omaha — again — became a very realistic dream.

Schlossnagle was asked what a third consecutive trip to Omaha means for his program.

“I think it speaks to the pedigree of our program,” he said. “There’s an expectation. We had some really great leadership, especially tonight from guys like Brian and Evan Skoug.”

Childress reminded that TCU had to rebuild almost its entire lineup and rotation from last season’s Omaha club.

“They’re just a very, very good coaching staff,” the Aggies coach said. “They’ve had a lot of turnover. When you think about all the players they lost off last year's team, to be where they are and still playing, I think it's a tribute to their older guys that are still with them and especially their coachng staff.”

It seemed like cruel irony that the Frogs’ winning rally in the seventh inning was ignited by an error by their former teammate White, who transferred to A&M after TCU’s 2014 College World Series season.

Pitching and defense, though, the hallmarks of almost every championship team, provided the edge in both TCU victories in the series.

After Howard had retired 11 in a row, freshman Durbin Feltman came in for TCU to secure the final six outs.

Catcher Skoug, racing from behind the plate after the final strike, was the first to wrap his arms around Feltman as the celebration began. Luken Baker, built like a Nordic lumberjack, was next, sending all three toppling to the bottom of the pile.

For the third year in a row and fourth time in seven seasons TCU is headed to the College World Series. The Frogs’ midseason identity crisis is over.

They know who they are now. And Omaha does, too.

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