OMAHA—Jim Schlossnagle still remembers the moment his program changed forever: Aug. 17, 2009. It was the deadline for major league teams to sign their drafted players or lose their rights, and the Texas Christian coach was nervously awaiting word from his prized recruit, Matt Purke—the No. 14 overall pick by the Rangers.
“It was 11:04—I’ll never forget it,” Schlossnagle recalled. “I was waiting on my phone, and then he called and it said ‘Purke’ on there, and I said, ‘All right, here it goes, he signed five minutes ago.’
“He was pretty emotional, because it was a tough thing for him. He said, ‘Coach, I just want to know, do you have a roster spot for me? I didn’t sign.’ I said, ‘We’ll find one.’
“I called (TCU recruiting coordinator) Todd Whitting right after—he’s the first person I called. He said, ‘All right, what’d he sign for?’ I said, ‘Dude, he’s coming to school.’ “
Purke is exactly the kind of player who can help a strong program like TCU make the leap to elite status, and that’s exactly what he did. The lefthander emerged early on as TCU’s ace, and he finished 16-0, 3.02 with 132 strikeouts and 34 walks in 116 innings. He dominated against Texas in the Austin Super Regional to help the Horned Frogs reach the CWS for the first time, and he shut down Florida State and UCLA to lead TCU to a pair of victories in Omaha. His 16 wins are tied for the most by a Division I pitcher since 2004 (Arizona State’s Mike Leake also did it last year). For meeting or exceeding lofty expectations that accompanied him to TCU, Purke is the 2010 Freshman of the Year.
‘TCU All The Way’
Talents like Purke simply aren’t supposed to show up on college campuses. Even in high school, the lefthander from Klein, Texas, owned a 92-95 mph fastball and a slider that ranked among the best in the 2009 draft class, and he seemed like a lock to land a signing bonus in the $4 million to $6 million range.
The hometown Rangers seemed like the perfect fit for Purke, but owner Tom Hicks’ financial problems forced Major League Baseball to take control of the organization’s purse strings, and MLB refused to approve the bonus required to sign Purke. Purke said he had no idea the club was going through financial difficulties that could affect his negotiations until “really late, and we didn’t see it coming at all.”
“Any guy’s dream is to play professional baseball, and to get drafted by a team in your home state that’s close to home, it was huge,” Purke said. “. . . I’m not going to lie—my family was heartbroken. My mother, three weeks afterward, still couldn’t drive by the stadium and not cry. It was devastating.
“But two hours after that I was on my way home to get my stuff, and I just had a real calming peace come over me, knowing that I had made the right decision, that I’d done right. I’ve been full TCU all the way since then, and it’s been really good.”
Purke, a strong bet to be selected in the top five overall picks as a draft-eligible sophomore next June, showed up on campus as the highest-drafted high schooler to spurn professional ball in favor of college since Charles Johnson in 1989. But you wouldn’t know it from the way he fit in with teammates immediately.
“He’s an unbelievable team guy,” senior catcher and captain Bryan Holaday said. “He’s a lot different than you’d expect—he’s completely devoted to the team, he’s not a ‘me’ guy at all. When he gets on the mound, he does have his cockiness, but that’s what a pitcher has to have if he wants to be successful.”
With his black-framed glasses, scruffy light brown beard and hat that fits slightly askew, Purke takes some ribbing from teammates.
“He can be pretty weird, but you know, he’s your typical lefty,” Holaday said. “He just handles himself very well. It doesn’t matter how much anybody talks about his hat or his glasses, or how much he looks like Harry Potter. We feed off him more than anybody could ever imagine. Whenever you look for somebody to pump you up or to boost you, you look toward your pitcher, because he’s the guy basically controlling the game. If he’s running back and forth and fist-pumping and getting into it, everybody else feeds off it.”
The players on the field behind Purke aren’t the only ones who feed off his energy. Weekend rotation-mates Kyle Winkler and Steven Maxwell also benefit.
“Purke has elevated Winkler and Maxwell, especially Winkler,” Schlossnagle said. “Winkler has learned to pitch with energy and pitch with some emotion. I think it has helped him a lot, and there’s no question he picked it up from Matt. And they all compete against each other. Purke throws seven innings, gives up four hits and one run, then you hear Maxwell and Winkler popping off, ‘I’m throwing a shutout.’ That’s easier said than done, but it’s good to have that competition.”
Off To Omaha
In the fall and spring, the three power pitchers competed for the Friday starter spot. Maxwell opened the season in the role, with Purke pitching on Saturdays, but Purke took over the No. 1 spot in week six and never relinquished it.
“I talked to coach Schloss early in the year, and he said he wanted me to start on Saturdays to get my feet wet, see how things go, but he fully expected me to be the Friday starter, and I did as well,” Purke said. “Once he told me it was my job, I took it and ran with it.”
By season’s end, it was clear that Purke was the final piece of TCU’s Omaha puzzle. The Horned Frogs had won their first regional in 2009 but were overmatched by Texas’ marquee pitching in the Austin Super Regional. When the NCAA tournament field was revealed this Memorial Day, TCU’s road to the CWS once again went through Austin.
But this time around, TCU had its own blue-chip ace to counterbalance Texas sophomore ace Taylor Jungmann. Purke won the super regional opener, striking out 11 while allowing just one run over 7 2/3 innings, and Jungmann shut down the Horned Frogs in a 14-1 rout in the second game. But instead of TCU having used its up its best pitching in the first two games, Purke’s presence pushed Winkler to the third game, and he came up big in a series-clinching win.
“I thought the difference last year was Taylor Jungmann, a guy who should not have been in college either,” Schlossnagle said. “He wasn’t drafted in the first round but he turned down first-round money. He’s a superstar. Last week (in the super regional), you saw Purke pitch his game, then you saw Jungmann pitch his game. We lost 14-1, it might as well have been 3-1—it wasn’t ever going to be close. So we got those two supermen out of the way, then we played good baseball. That was the difference: They had elite, elite pitching the last two years, and we were in the conversation but not to that level just let.”
It’s one thing for a prized recruit to arrive in college and put up big numbers. It’s another thing entirely for him to elevate his entire program to a new level—as a freshman. Purke did just that, so he and the rest of the Horned Frogs got to enjoy the ultimate college baseball reward: a trip to the College World Series.
“This is the place you want to be,” Purke said of Omaha. “This is the promised land for every college player.”
Even for supermen like Matt Purke.