The Star-Telegram's story on the TCU baseball team this morning had the headline "TCU enters Mountain West Tournament with a solid pitching staff." Now, I'm all for optimism and I certainly think the Frogs' pitching staff (which has been Omaha-caliber) definitely deserves credit for their performance. But the storyline for this team headed into the conference tournament is, without a doubt, how their already-struggling offense can find a way to replace the productivity of the injured Jason Coats.
In what will all but certainly end up being his last ever plate appearance at Lupton Stadium on Sunday, Coats reached on a throwing error by San Diego State shortstop Evan Potter but twisted his knee as he rounded first base. He was immediately pulled for a pinch runner, and on Monday it was determined that he would be out for at least this weekend with a sprain. This means that, going into the most crucial weekend of the year so far, the Frogs will be without their best and most experienced hitter. Coats accounted for nearly 20% of the team's total extra base hits, and his 45 runs batted in led the team by 11.
So who picks up the slack? Junior catcher Josh Elander is second to Coats in just about every offensive category and junior third baseman Jantzen Witte has been solid at the plate since his mid-season return from injury, so certainly they'll be looked upon to produce this weekend. But the Frogs will need other guys to step up and play a notch or two above what they have been over the course of the season. Two prime candidates are freshmen Kevin Cron and Derek Odell, who have really come on as of late. Cron, who's batting prowess in high school helped make him a 3rd round pick in last June's MLB Draft, has raised his batting average to .360 in 113 at-bats, and Odell is currently riding an 11-game hitting streak that dates back to his game-winning hit in the bottom of the 9th against Oklahoma on May 1st. Senior outfielder Brance Rivera, whose .225 average denotes the season-long slump he's been in, would certainly be thrilled to get back to the superb form he showed as a sophomore (when he hit .342) and junior (.324). Sophomore Brett Johnson ended the regular season on a high note, going 4-for-4 with a home run in the most recent win over SDSU.
The good news is, as Stefan Stevenson of the Star-Telegram wrote about this morning and as I mentioned above, the pitching staff ought to be able to get the job done this weekend even without a surprise breakout performance at the plate. Freshman lefty Brandon Finnegan, who looked fantastic taking a no-hitter into the 8th in his last start on the road against OU, will get the start later today against the Aztecs. That will give Schlossnagle some flexibility in choosing starters for subsequent games, regardless of which half of the bracket the Frogs advance through after the first game.
A win against SDSU this evening would put the Frogs in the winner's bracket, where they'd face the winner of tonight's New Mexico-UNLV game tomorrow night at 9:00pm. If they were to fall to the Aztecs (as they did twice this season), they would face the loser between the Lobos and Rebels tomorrow at 5:00pm and would then have to win four straight to take home the trophy.