Previewing the TCU series with Frogs O’ War

TCU Baseball (via TCU Athletics)

TCU Baseball (via TCU Athletics)

With the upcoming series with TCU carrying huge implications for both teams, this one is worth a preview. Melissa Triebwasser of Frogs O’ War was kind enough to exchange previews as Texas fights for a regional and TCU fights for its postseason life.

Baseball America’s most recent projection has TCU out of the tournament, and not included in either the First Four Out or Next Four Out. D1Baseball.com has the Frogs in the First Five Out category, so a series win in Austin would go a long way toward boosting TCU’s postseason chances.

I’ll let Melissa go into more detail.

Starting Rotation:
Thursday: Nick Lodolo (6-3, 4.48 ERA)
Friday: Jake Eissler (5-1, 3.60)
Saturday: Haylen Green (2-1, 3.19) OR Sean Wymer (5-3, 4.04)

The Frogs have been known for their pitching throughout their recent run of success, as well-known names like Brian Howard, Alex Young, and Preston Morrison carried TCU to great heights. The Frogs looked stacked heading into 2018, as ace Jared Janczak returned, bolstered by first round draft pick Nick Lodolo returning for his sophomore season, and Sean Wymer making the transition from talented long reliever to back end of the rotation. But Lodolo and Wymer scuffled early and Janczak’s season was cut short, putting the Frogs’ usual strength as one of it’s biggest question marks.

But something happened on the way out of the postseason discussion, as Jim Schlossnagle discovered a couple of special sophomores during the Texas Tech series. Starting in the series clinching game three victory, TCU starting pitchers went six consecutive games without allowing a run, as righty Jake Eissler and lefty Haylen Green made the jump from middle relief to starters with a flourish, both coming close to throwing no-hitters. Wymer has bounced between the pen and weeknight starter, and it’s unclear which role he will fill over the weekend in Austin. If it stays the same as it has been over the last two series, it will be Lodolo-Eissler-Green, and they have been very effective as a threesome down the stretch. The bullpen has been solid, even without Durbin Feltman, as Cal Coughlin and Wymer have maintained their excellence, and true freshmen Augie Mihlbauer and Caleb Sloan have looked like future stars. Charles King is one to watch – after shutting down Florida in the CWS last season, he has been up and down in 2018. But used in short stints against WVU last weekend, he looked like his old self, and can be a great holder for Schloss and Saarloos.

One Hot Bat:
The one consistent thing for the TCU offense in 2018 has been Josh Watson, who came out on a tear and has settled into being a really reliable hitter in the middle of the lineup. Watson slugged 11 home runs as a freshman before being handcuffed during a sophomore slump, but has bounced back as a junior by batting .320 to lead the team, collecting 30 RBI, and hitting eight doubles and eight home runs. He also leads the squad with 36 walks, including a four spot in game three over the weekend. It’s definitely been offense by committee in 2018, but Watson and fifth year senior Michael Landestoy are the two guys you want at the plate in a big spot. Landestoy has had a knack for getting the big hit in the big spots, as he proved Tuesday night in the ninth inning of the matchup against SFA, singling in a pair of runs in a tie game that ensured a TCU victory. AJ Balta, who we were concerned might miss a few games after slamming into the outfield fence against WVU Sunday, has also been on a tear, and never seems to get rattled by the moment.

Storyline:
At this point in the season, it’s hard to look at anything other than injuries as the pinnacle that can make or break TCU’s season heading to the conference tournament. Within two days, the Frogs’ lost their best hitter (Luken Baker) and their best pitcher (Jared Janczak). That was followed by the sudden disappearance of Durbin Feltman – quite possibly the best closer in the country – who has missed three weeks with blister issues on his pitching hand. And then, Sunday, TCU lost their most important glue guy and one of their hottest bats when AJ Balta crashed into the outfield fence and came up gimpy though he returned Tuesday night not looking much worse for the wear.

Injuries are part of the game, certainly, but the Frogs got dealt two more big blows right as they were starting to figure out how to play together. The only returning starter from 2017 is now Josh Watson in left – though Zach Humphreys and Connor Wanhanen were lineup regulars last season. It has made for a tough go in 2018, but the future is certainly bright.

But, TCU fans are spoiled, and not too interested in the future. For a program coming off four straight CWS berths, being on the outside looking in of the postseason field in mid-May is unfamiliar and unsettling. TCU has won their last two Big 12 series, and probably needs to take two out of three in Austin to have any shot of getting a spot in a regional (outside of winning the Big 12 Tournament). The Frogs are 4-5 wins away from an invitation, but can ill-afford a poor showing against the Longhorns if they want a shot at an at-large bid. We can certainly expect an entertaining Big 12 Tournament, with six teams capable of winning it, and the Frogs the most desperate of the bunch.