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Thursday, April 29, 2010
Expectations run high for Horned Frogs

By David Ubben
ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- TCU baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle sat in the stands of University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., in January. He watched his neighbor and close friend Gary Patterson play out his team's season at the head of college football's kids' table, the Fiesta Bowl. Both teams, TCU and Boise State, reached the postseason undefeated but were sent to the desert to play each other, while blue-blooded, unscathed Texas and Alabama geared up for a title bout among the roses in Pasadena, Calif.

Jim Schlossnagle
TCU has advanced to the NCAA tournament in each of Jim Schlossnagle's six seasons but are aiming for a berth in the College World Series this season.

"I'm mad that we didn't play better and win, but I thought it was great to have the opportunity," Schlossnagle said of the Horned Frogs' 17-10 loss to the Broncos.

High road, of course. But Schlossnagle watched that game with the knowledge that there's no kids' table in college baseball. Computers and pollsters can't keep his team from Omaha because they've never made it before. His team decides its own fortunes. Last season, the Horned Frogs came within a game of their first trip to the College World Series. Carrying a string of six consecutive conference championships (the last four Mountain West titles and two from their time in Conference USA), and ranked No. 11 by Baseball America, the Horned Frogs want another opportunity.

At 31-9, the program's best record through 40 games under Schlossnagle, they're on track to get it.

"You'd have to say to this point, it's probably our best club," Schlossnagle said.

When they've gotten chances to prove it against the big teams, they have. Against Big 12 teams this season, the Horned Frogs are 7-3 after losing to Baylor on Wednesday. On Tuesday night, the Horned Frogs got their seventh win against Big 12 competition in dramatic fashion, beating Baylor on a 10th-inning sacrifice fly by Joe Weik after tying the game in the ninth inning on a hit batsman with the bases loaded.

TCU has won over 280 games under Schlossnagle, advancing to the NCAA tournament in each of his six seasons and the super regionals last season. The Horned Frogs aren't lacking for respect, and wins over major conference teams aren't a necessity.

But Tuesday night's game was the fourth-biggest crowd in the history of Lupton Stadium. The three crowds larger than the 3,768 on Tuesday night were all for games against Big 12 competition.

"I love playing these Big 12 teams; it just shows what we have, and know we can go up against any team," said Brance Rivera, who scored the winning run on Tuesday. "Big 12, SEC, ACC, anyone."

The drama of the win added to the emotion behind the teamwide celebration with Weik at first base, leapfrogging one another before returning to home plate to sing the alma mater song with the remaining few thousand fans.

Though the games, especially Tuesday's, are filled with emotion, Schlossnagle downplays their ultimate importance.

"These games, they still all have value," Schlossnagle said, "but that's starting to change."

Part of that has been the emergence of the Mountain West Conference, where the Horned Frogs have ruled in the latter part of this decade since joining in 2006.

Baylor entered Tuesday's game with an RPI of 50. Next weekend's opponent, second-place New Mexico, has an RPI of 31.

"Last year, our league jumped from about 15th or 16th in the country to about seventh in the country," Schlossnagle said. "So, whereas normally, our RPI as we got into conference would go backwards, last year, it went up."

TCU's dominance has pushed that along, but Schlossnagle knew what was possible when he took the job. Before he took the job, TCU hadn't won a conference title in a decade.

"In the years leading up to me getting this job," Schlossnagle said, "if you'd polled 100 college coaches, 'name the top three or four places in the country that, if they made a commitment to baseball, could be really good,' TCU would have been one of the top schools."

Matt Purke
TCU pitcher Matt Purke is 7-0 for the Horned Frogs this season.

He was excited to take the job, and now he's even more excited to have it. Because of his efforts, he doesn't face the recruiting struggles his friend Patterson does on the football field. In 2005, just two years after taking the job, Baseball America ranked his recruiting class No. 3 in the nation.

"We go head-to-head on just about everybody," Schlossnagle said. "I don't think we're taking anybody's seconds."

This year's team isn't short on evidence. Pitcher Matt Purke was drafted No. 14 overall in the 2009 draft, but he turned down an opportunity at a seven-figure contract to come to college. He visited Vanderbilt. He visited USC and Arizona State, the two teams that met for the national championship in 1998.

He signed with TCU.

"I looked at this place and saw that three of the last five years, they've had a pitcher taken [in the MLB draft]. I played with a lot of guys on this team. I know what kind of coaches they have," Purke said. "I know we're ready and we're going to be one of those top teams."

Purke has lived up to his potential. He's 7-0 as a freshman after getting the win Tuesday night and has a 3.81 ERA. Never mind that he had to retire just one batter in the 10th inning to do it.

But he's still third among the team's starters, behind Steven Maxwell and Kyle Winkler, who are both 6-0 with ERAs of 2.83 and 3.73, respectively.

"Our pitching depth is probably as good as its been since I've been here," Schlossnagle said.

It's one reason the Horned Frogs, who also lead the Mountain West in home runs, look ready for a run back to the super regionals and beyond. A Big 12 team, national runner-up Texas, stopped them last season.

"It's an expectation, to get to the super regional and win the super regional and get to Omaha," Winkler said. "It was an expectation last year, but we'd never been there before; we didn't know what to expect. This year, we know what to expect."

David Ubben covers college sports for ESPN.com.