OMAHA—It's amazing that coming into the season, Texas Christian's coaching staff listed the team's infield defense as its biggest question mark.
On Friday, as Matt Purke induced 13 groundball outs, it was clear the Horned Frogs are extremely confident in their defense now. A big reason for that is the emergence of shortstop Taylor Featherston as a sophomore.
"We knew going into the season that losing three-fourths of our infield, only returning Taylor, that that was going to be a telltale sign of what kind of club we were going to have—if we played good defense," TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said Friday.
Featherston committed 27 errors as a freshman, and his struggles in the first half forced TCU to swap him and second baseman Ben Carruthers halfway through the season. But after Carruthers suffered a season-ending injury, Featherston had to move back to short, and he started showing signs of maturation. He worked hard to improve his defense in the offseason, and the fruits of his labor have been evident in Omaha.
"It's night and day (from last year)," Featherston said of his defense. "All we did was just work on footwoork, footwork all fall, just getting my arm and feet to work together. Now I just feel like I could close my eyes and throw it over there. It's just slowing the game down; you've got to play confident. So right now I feel like I'm going to get to every ball. I've been playing it right, I haven't gotten a bad hop in a while."
I've been impressed with Featherston's patience on defense. He hasn't gotten stuck on in-between hops; instead he simply takes a step or two back, waits for the ball to get to him and trusts his arm to make a strong throw to first.
"I think I feel better off my back foot, especially in the hole and off those high bounding balls, rather than to come up and make the throw on the run," he said. "I trust my arm, and I can get away with that sometimes. I prefer that.
"We've been playing good in the infield all the way around. We're solid right now."
Lost in all the talk about Purke and TCU's pitching and the leadership and clutch hitting of Bryan Holaday (as well as Featherston, who had a big two-run homer Friday), the defense is a huge reason the Horned Frogs are one win away from the CWS Finals.
Let's get to Saturday's picks.
John: A dejected John Manuel sent his picks in this text message this morning: "I think I've established that my picks are meaningless. I'll go with the Gamecocks (karma, Sam Dyson and Matt Price) and UCLA (Trevor 'Long Toss' Bauer). Don't bet on it." Thanks, Dmitri Downer!
John's Picks: UCLA, South Carolina
Aaron: I'm riding my pre-CWS national champion pick, TCU, as long as I can. The Frogs played a much better game in every facet than the Bruins yesterday, and clearly they've got the momentum. Of course, the saying goes that momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher. Certainly UCLA gets an edge there with Bauer on the mound, but I have a feeling Kyle Winkler will bounce back strong from his rough outing Monday against UCLA. I'm expecting something more along the lines of his super regional-clinching gem against Texas. And Paul Gerrish is a nice security blanket.
In the nightcap, South Carolina also has all the momentum; Clemson looked simply listless in yesterday's loss. The Gamecocks only won that game 5-1, but it felt like 50-1. Once again, I'm going to ride the team with the momentum, although I also would not be shocked if Casey Harman carried the Tigers to a victory today. I actually have less confidence in South Carolina righthander Sam Dyson's ability to bounce back on short rest (Harman is on nearly full rest, after all), but the Gamecocks have plenty of lefties in the bullpen if Dyson falters. I expect to see a healthy dose of Tyler Webb and Steven Neff today, and I think Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Walker and company will scratch out enough runs against Harman.
Aaron's Picks: TCU, South Carolina
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