Published June 17, 2010
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Undefeated TCU freshman pitcher Matt Purke certainly prefers making the 663-mile trip to the College World Series over what the former — and likely future — first-round draft pick could have been doing instead this summer.
"I wanted to come and compete for a national championship," Purke said. "It's a lot better than 19-hour bus rides to no-name towns."
Purke was the 14th overall pick by the Texas Rangers last summer, but turned down a $4 million deal after a larger offer was withdrawn. So instead of the minor leagues, the hard-throwing left-hander went to TCU, whose campus is only about 20 miles from Rangers Ballpark.
Now Purke (14-0, 3.23 ERA) is the nation's top freshman pitcher and preparing to start the Horned Frogs' first-ever College World Series game. TCU (51-12) plays the series opener in Omaha, Neb., Saturday afternoon against Florida State (47-18).
"He's a team guy. There's no prima donna whatsoever with him, except when he walks across that white line," Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "And that's what you want, I want you to be the meanest, biggest ego guy on that mound."
With the starting trio of Purke, sophomore right-hander Kyle Winkler (12-1, 2.84) and junior righty Steven Maxwell (11-2, 2.41) — all from the Houston area — and a record-setting offense, TCU is the only College World Series first-timer in this year's field.
Every regular in the lineup is hitting at least .303, and six of them have 45 RBIs or more. The Frogs have already set team records with 92 home runs and 173 doubles, and their .340 team average and .558 slugging percentage are significantly higher than the previous bests.
TCU was denied a national seed in the NCAA tournament, despite 46 wins and the Mountain West Conference regular season and tournament titles. Like last year, TCU again went undefeated through a regional on its home field before heading to a Super Regional at Texas.
Except this year, Purke struck out 11 in 7 2-3 innings in the Super Regional opener, and the Frogs went on to win two out of three in Austin.
"After what happened last year, that was the team we wanted to play to go to Omaha," Purke said.
Winning against the rival Longhorns left no doubt TCU is one of the best teams in the country.
"Within our program, we knew we were one of the top eight teams, but we just had to go prove it on the field," Schlossnagle said. "No doubt, we've earned our way there. Now we just have to go prove we've got to be better than that."
The Frogs have been to an NCAA regional all seven seasons since Schlossnagle became their coach, a year after moving into a new stadium. TCU has won five consecutive Mountain West titles since joining that league and last season got to host a regional for the first time and then made its first Super Regional appearance.
Now, the Frogs finally get to take the trip that has been plotted on a map hanging in their locker room for several years — the 663 miles from Fort Worth to Omaha.
"For so many years, we've been having to say we're going to do this, we can do this," Schlossnagle said. "Ultimately, we want to throw in a national championship there, but now we can say we can still achieve at the very, very highest level of college baseball and put ourselves in position to win a national championship."
After winning 4-1 in Austin on Sunday, the coach told his players to savor what they had accomplished. Schlossnagle told his Frogs to spend 24 hours thinking only about what they had done so far, to enjoy the moment and not look ahead yet.
The focus on Omaha started when they gathered for a team meeting Monday, then practiced on campus the next two days. They scheduled the trip to Nebraska for Thursday.
"We're going to take that confidence of going down to UT and winning two out of three there and take that into Omaha," said senior catcher Bryan Holaday, a .350 hitter with 13 home runs this season.
Purke, who will be eligible to be drafted again next June after his sophomore season, has 133 strikeouts with only 28 walks in 103 innings. Opponents are hitting a paltry .219 against him. He has won both his NCAA tournament starts, with 20 strikeouts and three walks in 14 innings.
"About halfway through the season, I think I really hit my stride," Purke said. "And I'm riding that until it's over."