Aggies keep winning in the playoffs despite ‘losing players left and right’

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

One win away from the finals in the Men’s College World Series, Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle is clearly enjoying the ride. And, why not? His team has won seven straight in the NCAA baseball tournament, including a 2-0 start in the MCWS.

At the same time, questions loom. Will slugging outfielder Jace LaViolette be ready to play on Wednesday? If not, how can the coach be expected to win a national title if he’s missing both LaViolette and Braden Montgomery in the most important game of the season?

Moreover, what will he do without the services of starting pitcher Shane Sdao, who like Montgomery suffered a season-ending injury in the Super Regional round? All serious questions that will force Schlossnagle to make some big decisions over the next 36 hours.

In his postgame news conference Monday, Schlossnagle said LaViolette “tweaked” a hamstring in third-seeded A&M’s 5-1 victory over No. 2 Kentucky. He did it apparently in the sixth inning when the Aggies scored five runs.

So, what is his status for Wednesday?

“Thankfully we don’t play (Tuesday),” Schlossnagle told reporters. “So we got 48 hours to see if we can get him functional to do something on the field. Last two weeks (we’ve) been losing players left and right. Gives other guys opportunities. Hopefully it’ll make a good story.”

The loss of Sdao to injury last week against Oregon could become a major issue should the Aggies falter and lose Wednesday’s game. If they lose, they’d need to play again Thursday for the right to move into the title series.

“When you’re down a pitcher like Sdao, that’s a big hole to fill for any team,” the coach said. “At least, for our team. The fact that we get an extra day’s rest and hopefully just have to win one (is important).”

Just when he mentioned his fortuitous position in the bracket, Schlossnagle recalled an experience that he had at another school, a memory that apparently still haunts him. Eight years ago, his TCU Horned Frogs went into the CWS semifinals with a 2-0 record and failed to reach the finals.

As it turned out, Coastal Carolina won in the losers bracket and then knocked off TCU twice in the semifinals en route to winning the MCWS title, a footnote in history that should give hope to both Kentucky and Florida, who play Tuesday night for the right to meet A&M again on Wednesday.

“In 2016 we had to win one game and Coastal Carolina had to win three, and they did,” Schlossnagle said. “So, we’ve won a couple of ballgames, but we’re not where we want to be yet.”

One of the keys to A&M’s success is, obviously, talented players who aren’t playing at the moment and staying ready just in case. Kaeden Kent is one of those players. He wasn’t in the lineup at the start of the NCAA tournament but now is playing a major role.

“It’s amazing,” Kent said. “Any time you can play playoff baseball, it’s amazing. The fans are crazy, especially at Olsen Field. And my teammates, our teammates, are ultra-supportive of everybody. We have each other’s backs, and we play for each other.

“Like (pitcher) Ryan (Prager) said earlier, we have full trust in everybody in that dugout. So it’s amazing when a team can come together like we are and enjoy being around each other so much where we can win ball games, and it’s super fun to play.”

Another element of the Aggies’ run to the brink of their first championship round appearance is resilience. Sometimes, players on other teams just get hot. Sometimes, in the case of the Oregon Ducks last week, they get hot and make a good pitcher like Prager look bad.

The Ducks hammered Prager for six runs in just one and two thirds innings in the opener of the best-of-three Bryan-College Station Super Regional. On Monday night, Prager had a chance to make amends, and he did.

He carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning and finished with 6 and 2/3 innings scoreless, allowing only two hits. A strong wind blowing into hitters’ faces aided his cause, but at the same time, he kept throwing strikes and forced the Wildcats to swing early in counts.

“After last week, as soon as I came out (of the game), there was some frustration,” Prager said. “(But) once we made the last out (in the series), all of that went away. We just won an opportunity to come to Omaha. I thought that went away pretty quick.

“But the first couple of days after, there was some thinking. Maybe a little bit of over thinking. But, truly coming back to neutral and understanding what I’ve done all year has led to some success and nothing really needs to change. There doesn’t need to be a drastic change.”

Did the Aggies catch a break when they showed up Monday afternoon with the wind blowing in? Sure they did. They’ll acknowledge it and they’ll take it. Including a 3-2 victory over Florida on Saturday, A&M pitching has now allowed only three runs in two games in Omaha.

Prager did his part, going deep into the game and minimizing the role that the bullpen would need to play to finish off the victory.

“First two games we’ve been here, that’s about how we drew it up,” Schlossnagle said. “Glad to see him get a little bit of a cushion. Also glad to see him not to have to go much further than he did. Because if we’re going to have a chance to win this thing, he’s going to have to pitch again on much shorter rest.

“So, he did a great job. We played good defense behind him. Any time the wind’s blowing like it was, it gives any pitcher more confidence to throw the ball in the strike zone.”

Coming up

Tuesday: Florida State v North Carolina, 1 p.m.; Kentucky v Florida, 6 p.m. (both elimination games)
Wednesday: Tennessee v Florida State or North Carolina, 1 p.m.; Texas A&M v Kentucky or Florida, 6 p.m., (semifinals)

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