It all looked like it was finally all coming together for TCU on Saturday afternoon. Oklahoma, the teamed labeled as the one to fear at the Fort Worth Regional, had inexplicably gone 0-2 and was the first team eliminated. Freshman Andrew Mitchell had given one of his best pitching performances of the season in the Frogs' victory the night before, meaning Jim Schlossnagle still had nearly his full stable of pitchers available to take down Oral Roberts and Dallas Baptist.
But then DBU's Jared Stafford out-pitched Matt Purke on Saturday night and the Patriots escaped with a 3-2 win, sending the Frogs into the loser's bracket. The original pitching strategy for the potential double-header on Sunday was for Kyle Winkler to pitch the afternoon game against ORU and then Erik Miller the nightcap against DBU. That plan was torpedoed, though, when Winkler left the game with an apparent arm injury in the 1st inning and Miller was put on the mound hours before he or the coaching staffed were mentally prepared for him to be. An innefective "start" by Miller led to Schlossnagle having to rely on his bullpen to hold ORU at-bay while the Horned Frog bats attempted to mount a comeback. It wasn't to be, though, as the 2011 TCU baseball season ended with an 8-3 loss on their home field.
So what happened? A year after the program's magical first trip to Omaha, they were ranked #1 in some preseason polls and returned three ace pitchers and a solid batting order. This was supposed to be the year that the Frogs would return to the College World Series and, shedding the Cinderella label they wore there last year, win the whole thing. Instead, their season is over- leaving TCU fans with an 88-day wait until football season.
For one thing, the bats just never quite showed up like they did a year ago. The team's batting average dropped from .334 in 2010 to .306 in 2011, and last year's squad had six regulars that had a higher average than this year's leader (Taylor Featherston at .335). The power numbers dropped off from 101 home runs last year to just 50 this year, and the team scored almost 2 entire runs less per game in 2011 than they did a year ago. But with the new bats this year, an offensive drop-off was to be expected with any team in the country.
The big difference this year was, like you've heard Ron Washington stress time after time, pitching and defense. This year's schedule was littered with losses to inferior teams in which TCU committed multiple errors that led directly to runs for the opposition. As a team, the Frogs committed 84 total errors (in 62 games) this year- after committing 78 (in 68 games) last year. I hate to point fingers, so I won't name names- but more than 30% of those 84 errors came from the same pivotal defensive position.
Pitching-wise, this year's team was actually a little better than last year's, statistically speaking. The team ERA fell from 3.55 in '10 to 3.20 this year, and the opponent's batting average from .252 to .240. The problem, though, was keeping the staff healthy. Kaleb Merck was sidelined for the year before the season even started, leaving closer duties to Erik Miller, who struggled in that role early in the year. All three of the premiere starting pitchers- Kyle Winkler, Matt Purke and Steven Maxwell- missed time late in the season, and Maxwell and Winkler (aside from the 2/3 inning he pitched Saturday) were absent for the Regionals.
So was this season a disappointment? Yes, and I think those within the program would be the first to tell you that. This team simply did not live up to it's potential. But if you're the type of fan who reacts angrily to a team not meeting your expectations (I know you're out there), I think you do have to consider the severe degree to which the injury bug bit this year's squad. I'm not sure there's a team out there that could survive going into the postseason with essentially three and a half of your top four pitchers out (Purke was on a very limited pitch count) as well as one of your top defenders and most clutch hitters (Aaron Schultz). I hate to make excuses for them, because they still had opportunities to win that they didn't come up with, but they did face pretty tall odds to replicate last year's success.