MORGANTOWN, W.Va.—Evan Skoug has been there before.
When he was a sophomore at Libertyville (Ill.) High, he found himself overly tempted by his baseball field's small dimensions. His approach changed, his swing got too big, and he struggled. The next year, an ACT prep tutor got him in touch with a sports psychologist—and they've remained connected. They talk every week on the phone, even now, with Skoug in the midst of his junior year at Texas Christian. Skoug knows that whenever he finds himself veering off track, he has someone in his corner to help steer him back. A safety net.
So when Skoug, a second-team Preseason All-American, slumped through the first month of this season, going 11 for his first 57 at-bats (.193), the junior catcher wasn't worried. Frustrated, yes. But not worried. Neither was his head coach, Jim Schlossnagle.
'There's a lot of things I lose sleep over," Schlossnagle said, "but whether Evan Skoug is going to hit or not is not one of them.
"He's too competitive, he's too good and he's too experienced, and eventually that was going to show itself on the field."
As people on the outside kept talking about the catcher's falling draft stock and kept telling Skoug he was pressing too much at the plate ("I probably was," Skoug admits now), Skoug remained calm and centered. He turned to his sports psychologist to help tone down his over-aggressiveness at the plate, and he turned to the TCU coaching staff to fix the sudden kinks in his swing.
Much like in high school, Skoug's swing had gotten too big, too long. He had a pronounced bat wrap that made it difficult for him to reach certain pitches.
The fix? Simplify everything.
"I was getting to places where I just physically could not hit the baseball," Skoug said. "So I went back to what I knew best—back to the basics—short, simple swing."
About a month into the season, Skoug started bringing those tweaks from batting practice into games, and the results have followed suit. His average has since risen 70 points to .261—more in line with his career average of .293. He leads the Horned Frogs with eight home runs with an overall line of .261/.378/.455. Schlossnagle said he's seen Skoug's approach gradually improve—he's laying off pitches out of the zone and looking for pitches he can handle—although he has still struck out 52 times to 25 walks in 134 at-bats.
At no point has Skoug's progress been more apparent than this past weekend at West Virginia, where the Horned Frogs tangled with the Mountaineers in an important Big 12 Conference series.
— Michael Lananna (@mlananna) April 15, 2017
The lefthanded-hitting Skoug homered three times in the first two games. His first two homers were nearly identical opposite-field drives to left, and his third just cleared the outfield wall in left-center field.
"When I know I'm going good is when I'm hitting the ball the other way and just staying on baseballs to all fields," Skoug said. "And I'd like to think I could hit the ball to all parts of the park. When I was younger, that's what I always used to do, is hit the ball the other way, and then I got corrupted by a short high school fence.
"So it's been a process the last couple of years of getting back to my roots and my strength."
Over the last few weeks, Skoug has regained a sense of comfort at the plate. In Saturday's game against West Virginia, Skoug struck out twice against electric sophomore righthander Michael Grove, swinging over a mid-80s slider in his first at-bat and chasing a rising 94 mph four-seamer above the zone in his second.
But he made the appropriate adjustments, and in his third at-bat, he powered a 1-2 slider on the outside corner over the left-field fence for his second homer of the series.
"Obviously, I punched out twice against him, and he punched a lot of our guys out," Skoug said after the game. "He was pitching his butt off, but he hung one out there on the outside, and just reaction, just threw my hands at it, stayed short. I chased a couple of (sliders) down in the dirt, but I didn't let the first two at-bats carry with me. I knew that I was going to get him because I had been seeing it so well and swinging so well. It was just a matter of sticking with it."
In his next at-bat, Skoug homered for the third and final time of the series, taking righthanded reliever Kade Strowd deep to left-center.
That power display was encouraging not only for Skoug and TCU but for draft evaluators, as well. Though his defense has steadily improved, Skoug is considered by most to be an offense-first catcher; his bat will largely determine where he's taken in the draft.
"The question with Evan going into his draft year is whether he'd catch well enough to play," Schlossnagle said. "And to his credit, he didn't get off to the start offensively that he wanted to this season, but he has never taken it to the field. Now he's starting to put the game together, and that's big for us."
Skoug, understandably, was fired up following Saturday's game, after a comeback win against the Mountaineers and a game in which he homered twice.
Though admittedly frustrated earlier this spring, Skoug knew it was only a matter a time before he turned his season around.
"I've been feeling great for the past couple of weeks, honestly," he said after Saturday's game. "I've been seeing it really well, but I just haven't been executing, and my big thing has been taking my batting practice swing into the game. I've been working with my sports psychologist a lot and my mindset has changed, and it's resulted in a lot shorter and more fluid swings—not trying to get too aggressive.
"With nice, easy swings, I can hit home runs like that, so why try anything else?"