As Coastal Carolina prepares to clash with TCU in a winners bracket matchup at the College World Series here Tuesday night, I traded questions and answers with Melissa Triebwasser of the SB Nation blog Frogs O’ War.
Here’s a quick primer on what to expect from the Horned Frogs tonight:
Q: How does TCU’s pitching look for this game and how deep is the team’s bullpen?
A: The pitching this season had been the team's biggest question mark, until the post season hit and the young arms found their groove. They went to the pen a little earlier than they would have liked yesterday, but only Brian Trieglaff was really stretched out, and with the day off, he probably could go if the situation warranted it. It appears that TCU will turn to Brian Howard to start against CCU – a tall, skinny righty who has the most starting experience of anyone on the staff but was kind of a surprise ace this season. He’s been unbelievable in the post season though –he shut down ASU and A&M in back to back weeks, the latter a performance for the ages that sent the Frogs to Omaha. He’s not going to blow much by you, but he’s smart, he pitches low in the zone, and he is a steady presence on the mound. He’s also an emotional leader, and the team picks up on that when he’s out there and plays with a bit more juice. The bullpen was a problem early in the year, mostly because it’s so young. But in the last month or so, guys like Trieglaff, Preston Guillory, Ryan Burnett, Drew Gooch, and Dalton Horton –who was only 8-0 as a starter before being moved back to the pen –have given the Frogs some really good innings. And if they get to the eighth or ninth with a lead, true freshman Durbin Feltman has been lights out as a closer. With upper 90’s heat and some filthy movement on his slider, he’s almost unfair.
Q: How is the team and fan base viewing Coastal Carolina? Did that win over Florida change any opinions?
A: You won’t see this team, its coaches, or its fans underestimated CCU. We aren’t all that far removed from being a Cinderella story ourselves, and the Chants seem to have a similar makeup in personality and skill set to the 2010 TCU team that made the program's first trip to Omaha. I think that a lot of Big 12 fans kept a judgmental eye on the SEC regionals/supers as we felt our conference was highly undervalued (we were right), so watching what CCU did in Baton Rouge definitely caught our attention. A lot of us were watching [Sunday] night, and were duly impressed. I went from “Oh wow, they’re going to beat Florida” to “Oh wow, we have to find a way to beat them” really fast Sunday night. This is not some team that lucked out and snuck into the field –they just plain beat people and were better than their opponents time and time again. I think TCU fans would be cheering hard for CCU if they were on the other side of the bracket, but having to play them in a game two – we have never won game two in our CWS history –is slightly terrifying.
Q: What has been the identity of Jim Schlossnagle’s teams, and what has been the driving force for this TCU bunch?
A: This is the least likely Jim Schlossnagle team in his nearly decade and a half history at TCU. Schloss’ teams have been built on impeccable pitching, excellent defense, and small ball coupled with an aggressive style on the base paths. This group hits the snot out of the ball, makes some errors in the field, and has seen its pitchers perform all over the map this year. TCU replaced the entire infield from their 2015 CWS team, the entire pitching rotation, and lost their center fielder and expected ace to injury. Evan Skoug and Dane Steinhagen are the only two guys that played every day a season ago, so there has been an adjustment period on defense and in the offensive approach. But they seem to have clicked at the right time, and are definitely playing their best ball now. We have had some good offensive players, but never anything close to a talent like Luken Baker, and he’s changed the entire dynamic of this team. Couple him with Evan Skoug, who hits a lot of doubles for a catcher, and freshman Josh Watson, who has been in a miserable slump but actually led the team in HRs this year, and you have the makings of a flexible, dynamic lineup that can beat you with speed, power, and patience, lead off hitter Austen Wade has almost 60 walks and Elliott Barzilli is as crafty as they come in the box. If the bottom of the lineup can get on base, they become so dangerous, because the top of the order is so good at moving guys around in a myriad of ways.
But, the key to this team isn't any one player or any coaching move – it's actually a seven year old boy. Micah Ahern is a kid dealing with cancer, neuroblastoma, that the team adopted three years ago. He has a locker at Lupton, was ‘signed’ to a LOI, and has developed really meaningful relationships with current players and baseball alums who are now in the Big Leagues. And, it was announced last week, that the Micah Ahern Baseball Scholarship was created to be awarded to a player annually. He means so much to this program and the fan base as a whole. The team wears patches on their hats and gloves with his Superhero Micah logo, keeps a shirt bearing his name in the dugout, and many write his name and mantra – NEGU, Never Ever Give Up – on their tape or in the dirt where they play. Micah is heading to hospice care soon, and it has given the guys just a little extra motivation to play their hearts out, knowing these are the last few games they can play for him. He will actually be in attendance Tuesday night, and I think that will have a big impact on the boys. We have seen them battle back in so many instances, showing that NEGU mantra, it's really hard to say they don't draw their motivation and inspiration from him, so I would say he's truly the driving force.”
Q: Any predictions?
A: I’m confident this is going to be another closely contested, well pitched game, much like both teams played Sunday. I think Brian Howard will need to work out of some jams, as CCU will find ways on base and into scoring position early. But the wily veteran goes seven strong, and some creative bullpen work keeps TCU within striking distance. The Frogs take a two run lead late and hold on for another close call in the ninth, winning 4-3 and getting over the game two hump.