FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — As freshman Karson Bowen bounced toward home plate and then into the TCU dugout after his go-ahead grand slam, head coach Kirk Saarloos saw something the Horned Frogs really needed at that time.
“Relief is the thing I saw,” Saarloos said.
Only a couple of days after being swept in a three-game series at West Virginia in late April to extend their season-long losing streak to five games — “Definitely a pretty low point,” record-setting slugger Brayden Taylor said — the Frogs trailed in the eighth inning at home against Dallas Baptist before Bowen’s big blast.
“He came running off the field with a huge smile on his face, and the excitement of the dugout, it was kind of like almost relief and kind of just the joy,” Saarloos said. “I think, honestly, that’s kind of where it flipped, a grand slam on a Tuesday night in the eighth inning against DBU.”
The Frogs (42-22) are now going to College World Series for the sixth time, their first since four consecutive trips to Omaha from 2014-17. They have won 19 of 21 games since the start of May, with an 11-game winning streak that includes sweeping through the Big 12 Tournament, the Fayetteville Regional and an unexpected home super regional against Indiana State.
“We needed all the pieces to connect. And once they did, we knew we would start rolling like we are,” junior center fielder Elijah Nunez said. “We never lost confidence. We knew what team we were … And now we’re here.”
TCU plays the opening game in this year’s CWS on Friday against Oral Roberts (51-12), which has won 23 of its last 24 games.
“All the credit goes to our players, because they got into a position of ‘Man, it’s not fun losing.’ They kind of looked at one another and held each other accountable, but stayed together,” Saarloos said. “It’s very easy to fracture and go different ways when things aren’t going great.”
Saarloos, a former MLB pitcher, went to the College World Series twice while playing at Cal State Fullerton (1999 and 2001). He was part of the Frogs’ four consecutive trips after becoming their pitching coach in 2013, and now goes in only his second season as head coach since succeeding Jim Schlossnagle, who left for Texas A&M.
Nunez and third baseman Taylor, who has 23 homers this season and is TCU’s career leader with 48, are third-year starters in an everyday lineup bolstered by freshmen like catcher Bowen (team-best .355 batting average, six homers, 46 RBIs) and shortstop Anthony Silva (.340-7-47), and key transfers first baseman Cole Fontenelle (.347-13-52), second baseman Tre Richardson (.315-6-59) and right fielder Austin Davis (.280-9-55).
Freshman right-hander Kole Klecker (10-4, 3.84 ERA) leads the Big 12 in wins, and freshman lefty Ben Abeldt (3-3, 3.72 ERA) has a team-high 29 appearances.
Right after beating Dallas Baptist, the Frogs lost the first two games in a home series against Texas to fall to 23-20. But they have been on a roll since a 15-7 win in the finale against the Longhorns on May 1.
“I think that we were just sick and tired of playing the way that we were,” Taylor said. “We just decided to go out there, start having more fun, start playing baseball the way we know how.”
TCU’s regular season ended with a 4-3 win at Kansas State when Nunez made an incredible leaping catch to take away a game-tying homer on the final play of the game. He also caught the final out of the super regional clincher against Indiana State.
In between those catches by Nunez, the Frogs scored 48 runs in the Big 12 Tournament to outscore their four opponents by a combined 33 runs. They had 44 runs in three games at the Fayetteville Regional, including a 20-5 win over host Arkansas when Baylor transfer Richardson hit grand slams in each of the first two innings as part of a three-homer game when he tied the the NCAA Tournament record with 11 RBIs. He had homered only twice before that.
The Frogs got the super regional at home when nationally seeded Indiana State opted out of hosting, with the Special Olympics of Indiana, an annual event on its campus, being held at the same time. TCU donated about $15,000 from concession sales to that nonprofit organization and Frogs fans helped donate at least an an additional $35,000.
“You take a disappointing thing for their program and you turn it into a positive in terms of what the reason of why they had to come here, of doing something for 51 years in the Special Olympics,” Saarloos said. “It’s just phenomenal.”