Gil LeBreton

Frogs know the road to Omaha, but need a little extra push

The road to Omaha is no mystery.

It’s Interstate 35 mostly, with a detour at Kansas City.

There are no shortcuts.

You bring your own pitching, your timely hitting and whatever grit you’ve got under your fingernails.

And from there, you hope the winds at TD Ameritrade Park fill your sails and that the college baseball gods will smile upon you.

The TCU Horned Frogs nearly had it all covered.

After three trips to the College World Series in as many years — and four over seven seasons — coach Jim Schlossnagle certainly knew how to get here. But even Schlossnagle will admit that so much talent had been lost from the 2015 team that the coaching staff never saw this third trip coming.

Any postmortem on the 2016 Horned Frogs, therefore, must start with that. Schlossnagle and his staff of Bill Mosiello and Kirk Saarloos did a masterful job in what was supposed to be, in essence, a year of rebuilding.

Two other hurdles had to be overcome. A lion’s share of the heart and soul of the returning team, leadoff hitter and center fielder Nolan Brown, underwent surgery on a broken hamate bone and eventually had to take a redshirt season.

The second blow was losing right-hander Mitchell Traver with a muscle strain in his back. Originally supposed to be out 4-6 weeks, Traver didn’t take the mound until May.

The season began, though. The Frogs turned heads. The Big 12 Conference was introduced to Luken Baker. But then a puzzling funk set in with disappointing losses to Baylor and Texas.

It was after the second loss at Baylor when the Frogs say they stopped worrying about who wasn’t with them and started believing in the team they had.

One thing the Frogs couldn’t seem to match, however, that Coastal Carolina had was the Chanticleers’ fire. The Chants wore it on their sleeves and in their beards.

In the Baton Rouge Super Regional, where they knocked off the Tigers, the Chanticleers’ spunk earned them a congratulatory ovation from the knowledgeable LSU crowd.

Here in Omaha, it got them to the finals.

That’s not a knock on the Frogs, who looked like the best team in town until Friday night. But just as they missed Cody Jones and once missed fiery leader Bryan Holaday, this team missed a guy like Nolan Brown.

It also needed to be edgy. Coastal Carolina was edgy. Its pitchers had an edge. And its head coach, Gary Gilmore, needed a shave.

I know I’m picking at nits. But to get back, to just knock on the College World Series door, the margin for error is wafer thin.

You could argue, perhaps, that the Frogs’ penchant for timely hitting leveled off in recent weeks. But I tend to blame that on the ramped-up tournament pitching that they faced.

Even in Saturday night’s elimination game, TCU had its chances once the lineup saw Coastal starter Alex Cunningham for the second and third times. The Frogs managed to get four runs and seven hits over the final four innings.

The Frogs had enough hitting, but not when it counted in the final two games. They had enough pitching, but again — just not enough of it in the final two games.

In the end, the CWS annals will record that TCU’s last gasp here was not enough.

In what was an uncharacteristic admission of what was churning inside him, Schlossnagle said, “Yes, we should learn from this experience. But right now it’s disappointment.

“And it’s real disappointment — as disappointed as I’ve ever been leaving this great city — because we had the club to win this thing.”

He’s right. And Schlossnagle, of all people, knows how difficult and precious the privilege to make it to Omaha is.

This year’s team, the so-called rebuilding Frogs, won 49 games.

Next year’s team — as of now, winless.

But the road awaits.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram