‘It’s tough to swallow’: Oral Roberts rallies in ninth inning to stun TCU at College World Series


TCU lost to Oral Roberts 6-5 at Charles Schwab Field on June 16, 2023. (Photo courtesy of GoFrogs.com)

By Charles Baggarly

OMAHA – The Horned Frogs collapsed in the ninth inning of the College World Series opening game.

After pulling away in the eighth inning, TCU took a three-run lead into the final frame. The Oral Roberts Golden Eagles turned on the gas, scoring four runs. They held on, defeating the Horned Frogs 6-5 on Friday.

TCU will play the loser of Friday night’s Florida-Virginia game at 1 p.m. Sunday.

“If the first game is any indication of the 2023 College World Series, it’s going to be a pretty special one,” head coach Kirk Saarloos said. “I thought both teams played extremely well.”

With relief pitcher Luke Savage on the mound, the Golden Eagles started their offensive onslaught. Savage sent away three batters the inning prior but couldn’t replicate the results in the ninth inning.

Three singles and a home run later, TCU lost its sizable lead. Second baseman Blaze Brothers hit the go-ahead, three-run home run, becoming a hero for the Golden Eagles.

“I just wanted to get around the bases to celebrate with the boys,” Brothers said. “It was just an unreal feeling. It was awesome.”

Saarloos said the team wouldn’t be playing in the College World Series if it weren’t for Savage. As the veteran reliever left the mound, Saarloos told him to keep his head held high.

“[Blaze Brothers] put a great swing on a baseball, hit a three-run homer,” Saarloos said. “It’s tough. It’s tough to swallow. But we’ll wash it. We’ll flush it. And the sun’s going to come up tomorrow.”

In the bottom of the ninth inning, right fielder Austin Davis tallied a base hit and center fielder Elijah Nunez tallied a walk. The Horned Frogs couldn’t send the ballgame to extras.

“I thought everybody played exactly the way we’ve been playing,” Saarloos said. “And you’ve just got to give credit to Oral Roberts where credit’s due. They’ve done it — I watched them in the postseason. They’ve come back. They’re a resilient bunch, an old group. And they put a great swing on the ball in the ninth. But I wouldn’t change anything. I thought our guys played with great effort, great grit.”

Saarloos said they’ll have to do things the hard way in the losers bracket.

“I’ll bet on our guys every single time,” Saarloos said. “So congrats, again, to Oral Roberts.”

A starting pitching duel

In the first four innings, Kole Klecker and Jakob Hall, the starters, went back and forth. The Golden Eagle offense did well facing two outs but couldn’t capitalize.

Klecker said he had pregame nerves, but they eventually faded.

“At this point this year, just settled in, kind of went with my routine, what I’ve been doing all year,” Klecker said. “… I started to cruise in from there, got in a good rhythm.”

The Horned Frogs turned two double plays to help Klecker keep Oral Roberts off the scoreboard. Although shortstop Anthony Silva made a throwing error in the third inning, the freshman made up for the mistake; in the fourth inning, Silva made a sliding play, making a 360 turn to record the out at first base.

At first, TCU’s offense struggled, recording one hit through three innings. Second baseman Tre Richardson, who walked in the second inning, was caught stealing. Hall was dealing, and TCU was stymied.

In the fourth, the Frogs capitalized on one of Hall’s few mistakes. First baseman Cole Fontenelle hit a 374-foot, 105-mph home run to right center field, giving TCU a 1-0 lead; Fontenelle has hit a home run in three consecutive ball games.

Keeping it close

Klecker started the sixth inning by allowing a leadoff double to left fielder Justin Quinn. Head coach Kirk Saarloos made the call to pull Klecker; relief pitcher Ben Abeldt took over facing a jam.

Abeldt recorded two big outs, holding Quinn in scoring position. The freshman left hander was one strike away from getting out of the inning; shortstop Mac McCroskey hit a two-out, go ahead home run to right field.

“[Abeldt] threw a really good slider to Jonah [Cox], got him out,” Saarloos said. And got [Matt] Hogan out. And almost wiggled his way out of that without giving up a run. And we were going fastball in and he’s got a low-arm slot. The ball kind of took off on him. And it ended up being a little bit up and away. And the [Mac] McCroskey kid did a really good job at that time.”

After the inning ended with a groundout, Klecker’s final line was finalized. TCU’s starter allowed five hits, one earned run and one walk. In 87 pitches, Klecker struck out one.

Fontenelle and the Frogs responded in a hurry. Catcher Karson Bowen started the bottom of the sixth with a double down the left field line; Oral Roberts head coach Ryan Folmar made a change on the mound, ending Hall’s outing. The right hander allowed two earned runs in five innings pitched.

Oral Roberts head coach Ryan Folmar said he was proud of Hall’s performance.

“[Hall] got exactly what we needed to get it to the bullpen and we found a way to hang on,” Folmar said.

Facing relief pitcher Caleb Isaacs, third baseman Brayden Taylor moved the runner over. Then, Fontenelle tallied his second RBI of the game with a single to right; Fontenelle was picked off to end the inning.

In the seventh inning, the Horned Frogs’ base running woes continued. On a routine fly to right field, designated hitter Kurtis Byrne was doubled up at first.

“You don’t want to do that in terms of making some base-running errors,” Saarloos said. “But I’m not sure how much it affected the momentum of the game.”

Taking a temporary lead

Oral Roberts decided to intentionally walk Taylor to load the bases in the eighth inning. The move didn’t work out, as Fontenelle picked up his third RBI of the day.

“[Fontenelle] has been ready for that opportunity every single time,” Saarloos said. “He may not get it done, but he’s been ready for it. And obviously the home run to start the game and then the walk and the base hit in the four hole. It’s what Cole has done this year.”

Richardson was hit by a pitch and Byrne added another with a sacrifice fly to left field.

The inning gave TCU an opportunity to close the game with a three-run lead. The Horned Frogs couldn’t capitalize and will head to the loser’s bracket.

“And the great thing about our team is, I think, their resiliency and their ability to overcome hard times,” Saarloos said. “They’ve done it. They have the whole year. I’m not worried about that one second.”