OMAHA–As he watched his team strike out eight times in the first three innings Friday against Florida righthander Jackson Kowar, Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle said he began to wonder if a team had ever struck out 20 times in a game at the College World Series.
As the Horned Frogs began their second time through the order against Kowar, however, they began to figure the sophomore out. Ryan Merrill, the nine-hole hitter, broke the ice with a two-out single in the third. Austen Wade and Zack Humphreys followed with back-to-back doubles, giving TCU an early lead. The Horned Frogs' bats stayed hot the rest of the night, and they rolled to a 9-2 victory against the Gators.
The victory was TCU's 50th of the season, the third time the Horned Frogs (50-17) have reached that milestone in program history. It also forced a rematch Saturday night with a spot in the CWS finals on the line. It will the third time the teams have played this week and will feature a rematch of Sunday's pitching showdown between Florida righthander Alex Faedo and TCU righthander Jared Janczak, which the Gators (49-19) won, 3-0.
Coach Jim Schlossnagle said that when the Horned Frogs finally broke through Friday night against Kowar it kick started the offense, even though the Gators responded with two runs of their own in the bottom of the inning.
"That just gave us some life," Schlossnagle said. "I know they got back with two in the next inning, but Jackson had been so good in smothering us that we got some confidence going at the plate and then put together a couple of runs to answer right back, which I thought was huge."
Merrill finished the night 1-for-3 with a walk. He is 4-for-12 with three runs and three RBIs in the CWS and has produced some key hits for the Horned Frogs. Schlossnagle said he considered moving him up in the lineup Friday but is hesitant to make changes to the order at this late stage of the season.
The depth of TCU’s offense was a large part of the reason the Horned Frogs entered the season ranked No. 1. But TCU’s offense has scuffled all spring, never seeming to fire on all cylinders. The bottom of the order has been a key to its success in Omaha, but the top of the order had struggled. On Friday, Wade, Humphreys and Evan Skoug, the Horned Frogs' top three hitters, found their stride. They combined for five hits and seven RBIs.
"Confidence is a great thing," Schlossnagle said. "It's good to have (Wade and Skoug), in particular, feeling good about themselves going into tomorrow facing such a good pitcher."
TCU also got a solid game from its pitching staff. Starter Mitchell Traver nearly matched Kowar at the outset, striking out five of the first seven batters he faced. Florida knocked Traver out in the fourth but was unable to get to the TCU bullpen. Freshman righthander Charles King threw 3.1 scoreless innings, and Dalton Brown and Trey Morris followed with a scoreless inning each to finish off the victory.
While Friday was a solid-all-around victory for the Horned Frogs, they know they face a stiff challenge with Faedo, the 18th overall pick in last week's draft, and the Gators standing between them and a berth in the CWS finals. This is the third straight year the Horned Frogs have made the final four, but in each of the last two years, their season has ended here
Skoug said the Horned Frogs are determined to make this year different.
"The first two years, we had a sore taste in our mouth because we haven't been able to finish the deal," Skoug said. "So I think now that we're so close again, we know what it feels like to be in the final four and get kicked out. And I don't want another bad day in Omaha because you have to say goodbye to guys like (seniors) Brian Howard and Mitchell Traver, and that's the worst thing ever."