Eight games into the 2017 season, the No. 1 Horned Frogs have been able to effectively handle the high expectations of owning the top spot in the country, bolting out to a 7-1 start after a 13-5 beat-down of the Rice Owls at Lupton Stadium on Tuesday night.
As the story always goes though, the better a team, the bigger the target placed on its back. Beginning on Friday, TCU will face its biggest test yet of what is still a very young baseball season.
For the second season in a row this weekend, the Frogs will be participating in the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. The reward for their invitation – three games against three top 15 teams in the nation, all out of the SEC West.
TCU begins the weekend facing off against No. 4 LSU on Friday night, followed up by a Saturday night affair against playoff-foe No. 15 Texas A&M before closing out the weekend against No. 11 Ole Miss in a Sunday matinee.
It will be a chance for the Frogs to show just exactly what they are made of as a team. A sweep, let alone a 2-1 weekend, will only solidify TCU’s position as the No. 1 team in the land, while anything else could jeopardize the Frogs’ top spot for now. With that, we take an in-depth look at just what TCU will have to deal with as they take the field at a Major-League ballpark.
LSU Tigers (8-1, No. 4) – Friday, 7:05 p.m.
Friday night’s affair against LSU will mark the first time that the Frogs and Tigers have gone head-to-head since meeting twice during the 2015 College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. If history is any indicator of success, TCU beat LSU 10-3 and 8-4 to eliminate a Tiger team that finished the 2015 season ranked No. 2 in the nation.
While rosters certainly change, the Tigers still maintain a myriad of players who were part of the 2015 College World Series squad, notably senior pitcher Jared Poche, whom the Frogs bested in game in Omaha two years ago. Poche (2-0) may very well be the hottest pitcher in the country right now, throwing just the sixth no-hitter in program history on Feb. 21 against Army before taking yet another no-hitter into the ninth inning Maryland on Saturday.
Luckily for TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle, his squad will not have to solve Poche at the plate this weekend, as the Tigers will send junior right-hander Alex Lange to the mound while Brian Howard is expected to start for the Frogs. Facing Lange however won’t be easy either, having recorded a 2-0 start to the season with a 12-strikeout performance against Maryland on Feb. 25. Howard (1-1) on the other hand is looking to get back in the win column after surrendering three runs in TCU’s lone loss of the season to Arizona State on Feb. 24.
Texas A&M Aggies (7-1, No. 15) – Saturday, 7:05 p.m.
Texas A&M, whom TCU defeated in the NCAA super-regionals each of the last two years, is back as a force to be reckoned with in 2017 despite the departure of third-baseman and former Horned Frog Boomer White. Though this weekend will mark the Aggies’ first trip of the season away from College Station, they’ll likely have the biggest home-crowd of any participating team as Minute-Maid Park sits less than 100 miles from Aggie-land.
It’s safe to say that Texas A&M will be thirsty for revenge against TCU given the events that took place the last two Junes, and they have the bats to do it. Six starters are batting .300 or better through eight games, with freshman Jorge Gutierrez leading the way at an impressive .462. The Aggies’ power at the plate was on full display a week ago when they scored 15 or more runs in three straight games, but they were held to just four runs in the first two games against Pepperdine last weekend.
TCU will likely send true-freshman Nick Lodolo to the mound against Texas A&M as the Frogs look to stifle the Aggies’ powerful lineup. Lodolo is 2-0 on the season with a 2.70 ERA over 10 innings pitched. Meanwhile, A&M’s projected Saturday starter, Stephen Kolek, has thrown exceptionally well in his first two starts with an 1.64 ERA over 11 innings pitched.
Ole Miss Rebels (7-1, No. 11) - Sunday, 1:35 p.m.
As TCU caps-off the weekend, they’ll be facing one hottest teams in the nation in the form of Ole Miss, who has already swept two three-game series against top-25 teams in their first eight games.
The Rebels took all three from then No. 6 East Carolina in Oxford, Mississippi in their opening weekend before giving the same fate to No. 25 University of North Carolina -Wilmington a week later. The Rebels have only scored double-digit runs once and half of their wins have come by two runs or less, but they’ve managed to get the job done when it counts, jumping out to a 7-0 start before losing to Memphis 9-6 on Tuesday.
The Frogs will presumably pit starting pitcher Jared Janczak (2-0, 2.77 ERA) against Brady Feigl, who is 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA. Though the Frogs may have an edge on paper when it comes to the pitching match-up, the Rebels have held their opponents to four runs or less in five of their eight games played. Of course, the Frogs themselves have only surrendered more than five runs on one occasion this season, so don’t be shocked if Sunday turns into a pitching-duel.
The Bottom Line
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There’s a plethora of talent among TCU’s opponents and the Frogs will have to be on their A-game should they finish the weekend 3-0. Every game will present its own challenge, from a disproportionately hostile crowd to a team that is thriving off of ranked opponents. TCU’s rotation has what it takes to entirely shutdown anyone’s offense on any given day, and the Frogs’ own bats can make a ton of noise as we saw against competitive teams in Rice and Arizona State. The freshman-heavy bullpen will need to eliminate high-amounts of runs surrendered late in the contest as we’ve seen on several occasions, but if everything clicks, TCU can emerge from Houston with an incredible boost on its resume early.