Off The Bat: TCU Grows Up, Currier Off To First Dance
Texas Christian Grows Up With Big 12 Tournament Title
Typically, by the end of the regular season, teams have established an identity for themselves. As the Big 12 Conference Tournament began last week, however, Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle wasn’t sure what defined his team.
After having to replace the core of the teams that had made back-to-back appearances in the College World Series, the Horned Frogs were young and hadn’t yet been tested in the pressure of postseason play.
That changed in Oklahoma City during the Big 12 tournament. TCU handily won its first two games, beating Baylor and Oklahoma State. But in the semifinals, Texas defeated TCU, 2-1, to force a rematch for a spot in the championship game against West Virginia.
“As tough as it is to say, going in the losers’ bracket was good for us,” Schlossnagle said. “The last two World Series teams we’ve had were full of older players who had played close games. Most of that team is gone except for few key guys who are still back. The new guys haven’t been through those things and the only way to get that experience is to go through them.”
TCU won its elimination game against Texas, 8-2, to advance to Sunday’s championship. Against West Virginia, TCU jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the third inning, only to see the Mountaineers come all the way back to take a 10-9 lead by the end of the fifth.
The Horned Frogs weren’t done yet, however. They tied the game in the ninth, and Luken Baker put them back in the lead in the 10th inning with a solo home run, his fourth of the tournament. Durbin Feltman retired the Mountaineers in order in the bottom of the inning, and the Horned Frogs celebrated their second Big 12 title since joining the conference for the 2013 season. With three games in 29 hours to win the championship, the final two days of the tournament were a grind for the Horned Frogs.
“We developed some character this weekend,” Schlossnagle said. “That’s something we can lean on in the next few weeks.”
TCU will also continue to lean on Baker, its freshman phenom who was named tournament MVP. Baker went 15-for-22 with 10 runs and 11 RBIs in the five tournament games. He set tournament records for both hits and runs. Baker is now hitting .376/.484/.552 with eight home runs this season.
Schlossnagle said Baker has taken a step forward in the last few weeks, as he has begun to understand that in certain counts he can look to tap into his plus-plus power.
“He’s an elite player, he’s an elite hitter,” Schlossnagle said. “As tough as it is to believe this, I don’t think people realize what kind of hitter he really is. He’s as special of a hitter as I’ve ever been around in college baseball.”
Since dropping the first two games of its series at Baylor two weeks ago, No. 10 TCU has won nine of its past 10 games. The Horned Frogs have built some momentum going into the NCAA tournament and, a couple hours after winning the Big 12 championship, they learned they will host a regional. Scholossnagle said he believes TCU still has room for improvement, a message he has relayed to his team.
“The coaches have told us, ‘Our best baseball is still just ahead of us,’” Baker said in a postgame press conference. “I feel like we are starting to play better baseball.” If TCU does find the next gear Schlossnagle believes it has in it, the Horned Frogs could well parlay their momentum into a third straight appearance in the College World Series.
Bubble Watch: LSU, North Carolina Bolster Hosting Cases
As conference tournaments continue, we look at NCAA Tournament bubble winners and losers from Friday.
With an 18-2 victory Saturday against Siena in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, Fairfield earned it’s first-ever berth in the NCAA tournament. It will also be the first trip to the NCAA Tournament for Bill Currier in nearly 30 years as a head coach.
Before coming to Fairfield, Currier spent 22 years at Vermont, his alma mater, and was its winningest coach when the program was shuttered after the 2009 season. He came close to getting the Catamounts to the NCAA tournament, but was unable to get over the hump. Now, the 2016 MAAC coach of the year, is headed to regionals for the first time since 1986, when he was a graduate assistant for Jack Leggett at Western Carolina.
“It was a while ago,” Currier said. “This is my first one as a head coach. I’ve been a head coach in Division I for 30 years, so it’s special.”
This year’s championship at Fairfield (32-24) marks the accomplishment of the goal Currier set when he took over for the 2012 season. He knew it would take some time to turn the program around—the Stags hadn’t had a winning season since 2000—but he wanted to win the conference within four or five years. To do that, Currier had to change the culture. He said they improved their strength training, hit the recruiting trail harder and tried to find better athletes.
While there were some growing pains, it has paid off. The Stags went 32-24 in 2014, setting a program record for wins that this year’s team matched with Saturday’s championship game victory.
“It was a little stressful the first couple years, but they brought me in to win here and change things around and I think I’ve done that,” Currier said. “The assistant coaches and myself are committed to winning, and the school is seeing it hired the right people.”
Fairfield leads the MAAC in hitting, with outfielder Jake Salpietro at the heart of its offense. The senior is hitting .349/.439/.581 with 10 home runs. But Currier said the team’s pitching staff and defense, which leads the conference with a .972 fielding percentage, have been key to its success.
“We’re getting our pitchers off the mound a lot of times in three outs,” he said. “The pitchers throw strikes, mix speeds and try to work quick and get off the mound. We try to play efficient pitching and defense.”
That combination worked well enough to bring Fairfield its first conference championship since 1993. Now, the Stags will get a chance to test themselves in regionals.
“I think we're playing our best ball right now, and that’s a good thing,” Currier said. “It’ll be a nice event, and I look forward to the kids getting that experience.”
Eight for Omaha Florida, Louisville, Miami, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Virginia
This week’s field was a struggle to put together. Several teams are closing hot—especially Clemson and Louisiana State—and look like they’re peaking at the right time of year. I thought I was going to jam one of them into the field. But, in the end, I will stick with what I had last week. While a few of these teams had lackluster conference tournaments, they largely werne’t playing for much. I expect they’ll be ready to go the next two weekends.
Eye-Catchers Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.
Jason Agresti, dh, Binghamton: Agresti hit a walkoff grand slam Friday against Hartford to cap a nine-run, ninth-inning comeback and send Binghamton to the finals of the America East Conference Tournament. The sophomore followed that up with a three-hit day in a championship game victory against Stony Brook, and was named most outstanding player of the tournament.
Mike Morrison, rhp, Coastal Carolina: The Chanticleers closer made three appearances in the Big South Conference tournament and worked six scoreless innings, going 1-0 with two saves. Morrison, a senior, was named MVP of the tournament, which Coastal Carolina swept through.
Oregon State: In its final regular season series of the year, Oregon State threw three straight shutouts against UCLA to sweep the weekend. It is the first time in program history the Beavers have shut out the same opponent three straight times. Starters Travis Eckert, Bryce Fehmel and Luke Heimlich combined for 24 2/3 of the 27 scoreless innings.
Danny Reyes, of, Florida: Seldom used during the regular season, Reyes took on a more prominent role when coach Kevin O’Sullivan shook up the Gators lineup at the Southeastern Conference tournament. The freshman made the most of his opportunity, going 6-for-16 with three doubles and four RBIs.
St. Mary’s: The Gaels swept through the West Coast Conference tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. St. Mary’s scored a WCC Tournament record 34 runs in its three victories.