Brian Howard felt like, as a freshman pitcher for TCU, he had as much influence for the Horned Frogs in the College World Series as the water cooler in their dugout.
Two years after not pitching in Omaha, the 6-foot-9 right-hander is a big reason the Horned Frogs are going back for the third season in a row.
Howard retired 16 of the last 17 batters he faced in the super regional clincher at Texas A&M with the College World Series berth on the line. That was a week after he shut down the last 17 Arizona State batters to win the Fort Worth Regional.
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"For it to be my first three years on campus, and all three trips going to the College World Series, it's unbelievable. I can't put it into words. ... I just never want this feeling to end," said Howard (9-2, 3.29 ERA in 16 starts this season). "What's been really fun, to contribute to an Omaha run."
This will be TCU's fourth College World Series appearance -- all in the past seven seasons. This might be the most surprising one, especially after the Frogs had as many as six seniors at a time on the field in Omaha last year.
Nolan Brown, the expected center fielder this season, injured his hand in fall practice and had surgery in January before redshirting after only three at-bats. Then Mitchell Traver, a 6-7 right-hander who won nine games last season, strained a muscle in his back the week before the opener and missed two months. And there was a 6-6 stretch into mid-May when the Frogs didn't look like a team set for another long postseason.
"You can't say you'd expect it to happen," coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "I thought we were talented enough if we played well at the right time, like any team, but if you had told me before the season that Traver's not going to pitch for the first 12 weeks and Nolan Brown is going to redshirt and Luken Baker's going to go down halfway through, I would say no."
TCU lost Baker as a pitcher, but not as a slugger.
The big freshman, who last year told MLB teams to not waste a draft pick on him because he was going to TCU after high school, is the Frogs' top hitter at .379 with nine home runs and 57 RBIs. He was 3-1 with a 1.70 ERA in 10 starts before a muscle strain ended his time on the mound this season.
"It's hard to think of him as a freshman because of how much he's contributed," Howard said. "He's the best baseball player I've ever seen in my life. ... He's a tough out, but he's such a team guy."
The Houston Astros still used a 37th-round pick last June on Baker, who would have gone much higher if not for his pronounced plan to join the Frogs.
TCU has won 14 of its last 16 games, including the Big 12 Conference tournament championship. The Frogs beat Texas A&M in a three-game super regional for the second year in a row -- this time with Howard's solid performance at College Station after a 16-inning clincher at home last year.
Their CWS opener is Sunday against Big 12 foe Texas Tech, the same as when they went to Omaha two years ago. The Red Raiders won two of three in Fort Worth during TCU's 6-6 stretch that ended about a month ago.
Schlossnagle would like to stay in Omaha a little longer this time. TCU got within one win of the best-of-three finals in 2010, won only once in 2014 and went 2-2 last season.
"I came home and it made me sick to my stomach to watch it, because you just don't know when the next time you're going to get to go," Schlossnagle said. "We're going there to win."