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NCAA Baseball: TCU expert previews the Arizona game, makes a prediction

arizona-wildcats-college-baseball-tcu-horned-frogs-big12-kirk-saarloos-fayetetteville-regional-ncaa Photo by Bailey Orr/Texas Rangers/Getty Images

With a few exceptions, Arizona has spent the last two-plus months playing almost exclusively Pac-12 teams. And while it struggled mightily in the middle of the season, losing 10 in a row at one point, the results down the stretch against conference foes earned the Wildcats a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

So long, Pac-12. Hello, the rest of college baseball.

Arizona is in the Fayetteville Regional, a double-elimination tournament with three other teams including Santa Clara and host Arkansas. It will play at least one of those squads on Saturday, but first up is the opener Friday against TCU.

The Horned Frogs (37-22) got in by winning the Big 12 Tournament title. They reached the College Station regional final last season but haven’t advanced to Super Regionals since 2017, the last year of four straight trips to the College World Series.

To better understand Arizona’s opponent, we reached out to Russell Hodges of SB Nation sister side Frogs O’War. He are his pointed answered to our dull questions:

AZ Desert Swarm: TCU was the preseason pick to win the Big 12 and opened the season with wins over SEC powers Arkansas and Vanderbilt. But after a solid start to league play the Horned Frogs dropped seven of eight and ended up tied for fourth place. What led to the midseason lull?

Russell Hodges: “There were a combination of factors that led to TCU’s midseason struggles this spring. One of which was injuries to key relievers including Hunter Hodges, Luke Savage and Garrett Wright, who were each expected to be leading contributors on the staff this season. Another factor was poor starting pitching, with veteran arms like Cam Brown and Kansas transfer Ryan Vanderhei struggling mightily after showing some positive results early on. Since moving two freshmen (Louis Rodriguez and Kole Klecker) into the rotation, TCU has seen the starting pitching improve immensely. Lastly, TCU’s defense was very poor throughout the first half of the season, but some lineup changes have helped solidify that end.”

Once the calendar turned to May, though, TCU won 10 of 12 to end the regular season and then swept through the Big 12 tourney to a title. What led to this late surge?

“TCU’s offense has been highly effective this season, but this feels like the first time all season where all nine hitters are clicking at the same time. Players like Kurtis Byrne, Elijah Nunez and Austin Davis are gaining steam after struggling mightily in April. Additionally, TCU’s starting pitching has improved, with the two freshmen I mentioned previously as well as California transfer Sam Stoutenborough making the most of their opportunities after opening the season out of the bullpen. Lastly, TCU moved a few players to the bench that had been struggling, with Logan Maxwell and Kurtis Byrne taking over in the outfield and at DH for Luke Boyers and David Bishop, who opened the season as starters.”

Like Arizona, TCU has a former MLB player as its coach. How did Kirk Saarloos end up joining the program in 2012 as an assistant and why was he the right choice to take over when Jim Schlossnagle left for the Texas A&M job in 2022?

“Kirk Saarloos was previously the pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton, where he played his collegiate ball, prior to arriving at TCU. Saarloos played seven years of major-league baseball from 2002-08 before beginning his coaching career with the Titans, where he spent two seasons before being hired at TCU. I think Saarloos was the right choice for the job after Schloss left because of his track record of developing arms on a year-to-year basis. TCU has produced several high draft picks and MLB arms since his arrival and his success as an assistant coach allowed him to become a popular face for Horned Frog fans. When Schloss left, promoting Saarloos was a no brainer for most.”

Speed looks like it’s a huge part of the game plan, with 129 stolen bases overall and six players in double figures. Is that done to make up for other deficiencies or does it enhance the offense?

“The speed on the basepaths is not necessarily something that makes up for a deficiency. Rather, it’s an added ability that TCU’s offense carries. Austin Davis and Elijah Nunez bring most of the speed with them, as each player has had a 30-stolen-base season prior to 2023. But the Horned Frogs have shown a willingness to be aggressive when they feel they can jump on opponents early in games. I think the speed will definitely be a factor when TCU and Arizona square off this weekend.”

Junior 3B Brayden Taylor is a projected first-round pick in June, and his 21 homers with a .305 average make this evident. Which other hitters should Arizona’s pitchers be most concerned with?

“TCU had four position players earn All-Tournament Team honors in the Big 12. Kurtis Byrne, Elijah Nunez and freshman catcher Karson Bowen are three of them and each of them have been on a tear since the month of May started. Cole Fontenelle has been a monster in the middle of the order since arriving from JUCO ball and Tre Richardson has been about as consistent as consistent gets since coming over from Baylor. Austin Davis has a long track record as a former All-Big 12 First Team player at West Virginia and Anthony Silva lived up to the hype after being named Big 12 Preseason Freshman of the Year, hitting well over .300. TCU averaged 12 runs per game in the Big 12 tournament with all guys hitting from 1-9.”

Who do you expect to start on the mound for TCU, and what makes them the go-to pitcher for the NCAA tourney opener?

“Louis Rodriguez has been TCU’s weekend opener over the last few weeks, but he didn’t pitch during the Big 12 tournament because of a shoulder issue. Should Rodriguez not be able to throw on Friday, I’d expect Saarloos to roll with Kole Klecker, who’s been TCU’s most consistent starter from the start of the season to the end. Klecker’s biggest strength is his ability to limit hard contact and pitch deep into games. He has more quality starts and more wins than any other TCU pitcher this season.”

How excited around you to have Kerr Kriisa come to Fort Worth with West Virginia this winter?

“I expect the Frog fans at Schollmaier to give Kerr an EXTREMELY warm welcome when he arrives in Fort Worth this coming winter. Let’s hope he can make more than one field goal this time around!”

Prediction time: Will TCU carry over momentum from the Big 12 tourney and win a seventh straight game or will Arizona show why it deserved one of the last at-large bids? Who advances to the winner’s bracket?

“I’m of course taking TCU to win this game and take the regional championship. This team is peaking at the right time and the Frogs have already gotten a look at Arkansas this season, winning 18-6 at Globe Life Field in February. TCU went from being a fringe tournament team to earning a No. 2 seed in the span of a few weeks and it’s been rightfully deserved.”