Offensive Stars Break Out For TCU

College World Series


OMAHA — TCU managed to reach Friday’s College World Series bracket final even though its offense was hardly firing on all cylinders during its first three games. The Frogs scored eight runs in those games and hit .211 as a team, but they got some timely hits and some strong pitching, which helped them go 2-1.

But the Horned Frogs seemed unlikely to win the CWS Finals if the top third of their lineup continued to scuffle as it had in those first three games. Austen Wade, Zach Humphreys and Evan Skoug went a combined 3-for-29 with 13 strikeouts and four in those games. Ordinarily, that trio makes this lineup go.

So it wasn’t a great sign when that trio opened Friday night’s game against Florida by going down on strikes, in order, in the first inning against Jackson Kowar, who retired the first eight batters in a row — seven of them via strikes. At that point, with two outs in the third inning, it felt like the TCU offense could be in store for a long game.

But a two-out single by Ryan Merrill in the third broke the spell, and then the guys at the top of the lineup stirred to life. Wade drove Merrill in with an opposite-field double to left, and Humphreys knocked in Wade with a ground-rule double to right-center, giving the Frogs a 2-0 lead and jumpstarting the offense. Wade, Humphreys and Skoug combined for five hits, three runs and seven RBIs, leading TCU to a 9-2 victory and forcing a Saturday rematch against the Gators, with a trip to the Finals on the line.

For the first time in this CWS, TCU’s most dangerous hitters looked comfortable and looked like themselves.

“I think all season, we are at our best when we stay on the baseball,” said Wade, who leads the team with a .333 average and a .444 OBP. “Coach (Bill) Mosiello preaches it. Obviously when we become happy top spinning balls to pull side, that’s not our offense. I preached about it when we’re driving balls off gap, that’s when our offense is playing at its best. I think tonight we had a lot of those swings that said we are going to tip our cap to some pitches. Obviously Jackson did a great job tonight early.

“But second time through, like I said, we’ve got to be ready to go. And I think once we strung a few hits together, it kind of up and down our lineup said we have a little confidence, and we just kind of rolled with that.”

Wade got his first CWS Thursday night with an opposite-field single to cap TCU’s four-run second inning, and that proved to be the winning run. He maintained that middle-away approach Friday, helping him collect a pair of hits.

“We’ve really worked hard in the cages the last couple of days and some early hitting in the mornings, just trying to get some of those lefthanded hitters to stay on some baseballs,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “I felt really good about — Wade, when he’s hitting the ball the other way, like he said, staying on the baseball, he’s as good a hitter as there is out there.”

Skoug, of course, is the most dangerous power hitter in the lineup, with a team-best 20 homers and 71 RBIs. He also has 96 strikeouts after whiffing in his first two at-bats on Friday, making him just three Ks shy of Tommy Mendonca’s single-season Division I record.

Of course, Mendonca also earned CWS Most Outstanding Player honors that year — in 2008, when he helped lead Fresno State to the national title. Skoug would surely be satisfied with that kind of outcome. Like Mendonca, he has been an extremely valuable offensive player despite all those punchouts — he was a first-team All-American this year, after all.

But his all-or-nothing approach had been exploited in Omaha, where he now has nine strikeouts in four games. Until the fifth inning Friday, every one of Skoug’s postseason hits went for extra bases — it doesn’t get much more all-or-nothing than that.

TCU’s Evan Skoug (Eric Sorenson)

After falling behind 1-2 in the count in the fifth, Skoug ripped a single to right field, and perhaps that was a springboard for him. In his next at-bat one inning later, Skoug came up with the bases loaded and two outs against Garrett Milchin. He fouled off a pair of pitches to run the count to 2-2, then he proceeded to break the game wide open with a laser into the right-center gap for a three-run double. That put the Frogs up 8-2.

“When he came up with bases loaded, that’s a really good matchup for Evan. He’s a low-ball hitter. When he fouled those two balls into the seats on the third base side, those are the best swings he’s taken in a couple of weeks, even the home runs he’s hit in the regional, super regional,” Schlossnagle said. “I felt if he could get one a bit elevated, he was going to put a good swing on it. And that was huge.

“Confidence is a great thing. And it’s good to have those two guys, in particular, feeling good about themselves going into tomorrow facing such a great pitcher.”

That pitcher is Alex Faedo, who shut down the Frogs when these two teams met in their CWS opener on Sunday. A year ago, the Frogs were in the same position the Gators are in now — they had won their first two CWS games to climb into the bracket’s catbird seat, then watched Coastal Carolina beat them twice in a row. That was a formative experience.

“I mean, for us, Austen and I both, the playoff experience here and we’ve made it to this stage, I guess, twice, this would be our third time,” Skoug said. “So the first two years we had a sour taste in our mouth because we haven’t been able to finish the deal. 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 Brian Howard and Mitchell Traver, and that’s the worst thing ever. So we have that taste in our mouth, and I think that’s going to help us because it brings us to a sense of urgency. And we’re really going to have to compete to knock Faedo off and knock Florida off.”

Stopping TCU’s offense should be a tougher assignment for Faedo this time around, if Friday was any indication. Offense is contagious, and confidence can carry over to the next day.

But now Florida needs to find a way to jumpstart its own offense in a rematch with TCU ace Jared Janczak. The Gators have scored 10 runs in three games and are hitting .200 as a team in Omaha.

“I think the anticipation of getting out here, the first game you go 0-for-4, and the second game you’re 0-for-3 with a walk, now you’re 0-for-7 and next thing you’re 0-for-10 with two walks. Guys start pressing a little bit,” said Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan, perhaps alluding to leadoff man Ryan Larson, who is 0-for-11 with two walks in Omaha. “Probably need to look at the lineup a little tomorrow. I hate to make a change this late in the season. But there’s some guys that are obviously not feeling great about themselves right now, and maybe I can take pressure off them by moving them down a little bit.

“But our recipe for success the whole year has been starting pitching gives up three or less, three or four runs, we’ve got a chance. And, like I said, we’re fresh (on the mound) tomorrow. And we’ll see what happens.”

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