Brian Howard bounced toward the dugout in his skinny 6-foot-9 frame, lifting his cap to acknowledge the crowd when the TCU right-hander was replaced with the Horned Frogs closing in on their fourth consecutive trip to the College World Series.
"Big Game Howie" played a big part in that milestone in his final home game.
Howard extended an impressive postseason streak, Evan Skoug homered for the second straight day and the Horned Frogs moved on with an 8-1 win for a super regional sweep of Missouri State on Sunday night.
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Howard (11-3) won his fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament start going back to last season, striking out 11 in 7 1/3 innings to help TCU become the first school since North Carolina (2006-09) with four straight trips to Omaha.
A senior who passed on a chance to sign with Houston as a 17th-round pick in the major league amateur draft last year, Howard has four straight clinching NCAA wins for the Horned Frogs going back to last season — the regional and super regional both years.
"The thing about Brian is you know that the bigger game, the more ready he's going to be," coach Jim Schlossnagle said of the only TCU pitcher with consecutive 10-win seasons.
"When it's on the line, when you have a chance to win a championship ... you want `Big Game Howie' out there. He'll go down as one of the greatest big-game pitchers in the history of this program."
Howard hugged Schlossnagle on the mound when the coach came out to get him after the Missouri-bred pitcher struck out Bears home run leader Jeremy Eierman for the first out in the eighth. Howard allowed four hits.
"I had to go underneath, got a little emotional and I wanted to hopefully not let everybody see that," said Howard, who has a 1.96 ERA in nine NCAA appearances. "It's just been the best four years of my life. And this stadium has been a huge part of it."
Skoug's two-run homer — his 20th — gave the Horned Frogs (47-16) a 4-1 lead in the third inning after his two-run shot in the eighth of the opener erased a one-run deficit and sent TCU on the way to its first super regional sweep.
It's the fifth CWS bid for the Horned Frogs, all since 2010. TCU, the No. 6 national seed, is looking for its first championship.
Hunter Steinmetz hit a leadoff homer for the Bears (43-20), who were trying for the second College World Series berth after knocking off host Arkansas in the Little Rock Regional to reach the super regional for the second time in three years. The other CWS trip was in 2003.
Missouri State starter Doug Still (8-3) gave up eight hits and four runs in five innings.
"What we have done the past three years, no other three-year stretch has been accomplished at this school," senior Justin Paulsen said. "We've left the program in a good state and we've taught the younger guys how to win. Hopefully they'll bring that with them for the next coming years."
Elliott Barzilli hit a three-run homer in the ninth after putting the Horned Frogs ahead for good at 2-1 with an RBI double in the second. He had three hits along with Zach Humphreys and Cam Warner, who had an RBI single in the first.
Sean Wymer replaced Howard and got a flyout before finishing with four straight strikeouts, prompting a dogpile between the mound and second base while purple fireworks went off beyond the fence in center field.
Howard twice escaped first-and-third jams with one out to secure his fourth NCAA start out of five with just one run allowed since last season. And now he's making his fourth trip to Omaha, although he didn't pitch there when he was a freshman. His only NCAA appearance that season was a four-inning stint in a 22-inning victory over Sam Houston State in the regional.
A junior who is eligible for the major league amateur draft, Skoug moved into fourth on TCU's single-season list. It was his fourth homer in five postseason games this season, all TCU wins. Skoug, who walked to force home another run in the sixth, is tied for fourth on TCU's career list with 36 homers.