OMAHA, Neb. – Howdy y’all.
It’s Tuesday at the College World Series, where TCU and Texas A&M are fixin’ to play an elimination game. TD Ameritrade Park is as Lone Star State as barbecue. Might as well go with the jargon.
As matchups go, this is tall cotton. TCU has a chance to knock Texas A&M out of the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year. Look over there warming up for TCU. Brian Howard. They call him Big Game Howie. He’s 6-9. Not many things in Omaha taller than that. But then, everything’s bigger in Texas. He’s also listed at 185 pounds, thinner than a fiddle string.
This isn’t Big Game Howie’s first rodeo. He’s had the first back-to-back 10-win seasons in school history, and TCU baseball goes back a spell. He’s also won five consecutive NCAA Tournament starts, including finishing off Texas A&M in last season’s super regional. That’s where he got his nickname. Let’s just put it this way, if he crows, the sun is up.There Howard goes in the first inning: K, K, double, K. Second inning, K, K, K. Boy, you can’t beat this with a stick. Can’t hit this with a bat, neither. He said the other day he’s prepared his whole life for moments like this. Now he’s doing it. You can’t say he’s all hat and no cattle.
His fastball is all gussied up. While the innings go by, we can mark this Lone Star afternoon with a little “Did You Know?” about other Texas pitchers of lore.
Did you know Nolan Ryan threw seven no-hitters? And his seventh came at the age of 44, meaning he was older than Cubs architect Theo Epstein is now?
Did you know Greg Maddux, born in San Angelo, won 18 gold gloves?
Did you know that the Texas Longhorns have played in 35 College World Series, 10 more than anyone else? That includes 1982 and ’83, when the lowest earned run averages in the CWS belonged to Roger Clemens and Calvin Schiraldi, who ended up together for the Boston Red Sox in the big league World Series in 1986.
OK, back to Big Game Howie, who by the way, was not born in Texas, as 13 starters were Tuesday. St. Louis. But he’s Texas now.
It’s the eighth inning, and his strikeout up total is up to 12. For Aggie hitters, this is like trying to bag fleas. But when he gives up a double to open the eighth, coach Jim Schlossnagle figures that’s enough. The bullpen finishes the 4-1 victory, and that’s all she wrote. That makes Howard 6-0 in six tournament starts the past two seasons with a 1.51 ERA, and 50 strikeouts in 41.2 innings. That’s more than you can say grace over.
“Big Game Howie,” Schlossnagle says afterward, “showed up today.”
The record will show during the regular season, Howard has been known to be hittable. His ERA was still way over 5 as of late March. So what makes his pitches as slippery as a pocketful of pudding in May and June?
Pitching coach Kirk Saarloos has some thoughts: “I don’t know if it’s hyper-focus in these situations. His game plan especially in the postseason is all about winning. Not that it’s not earlier in the season, but he seems to kind of put everything else on the backburner.
“The big thing for him is I think he controls his negative emotion better at this stage of the year. Earlier in the season when something would go bad, you’d be able to see it on his face and the way he would pitch he wouldn’t be quite as sharp and it would snowball on him.”
Schlossnagle, too: “When you’re in the fire enough, you know how to handle it . . . He knows how to channel all that Brian Howard-ness energy to the right spot.”
Yes, Howard’s verve can sometimes hallelujah the county. He mentioned that TCU’s three core values are selflessness, excellence and energy. “When I was young here. I really didn’t have the first two core values down, so I had to really step it up in the third. I told myself, 'If I can do something for this team — and it wasn’t winning ballgames — I’ll bring a lot of energy.”
Live wire, ain’t he?
About that nickname. “I think it mainly comes from the fact that I don’t do that all regular season. I think they’re kind of making fun of me a little bit. I like it. It’s funny. I guess I would look pretty dumb if I went out and gave up eight runs today. They’d probably revoke the nickname pretty quick.”
Or the Big Game Howie cap one of his teammates’ mothers made for him. “It’s white and bedazzled, so I probably won’t be rocking it too often.”
Or the blister he pitched with on his thumb Tuesday. “It affected me on every hit I gave up. But other than that, it was fine.”
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But really, why does his pitching turn as hot as a summer revival in the tournament? “I don’t know what it is. But it’s just going to come down to whether or not you execute pitches. So far in my career I’ve been able to do it in the postseason, which is when it matters the most. So if I could choose whether or not to be good in the regular season or the postseason, I’d definitely choose the postseason, but I’d like to figure out a way to do it all the time.”
For now, the Horned Frogs can paint the town and the front porch. They’re moving on. But no matter what happens from here, this all-Lone Star game proved one thing, and you can take it to the bank.
When Big Game Howie is on the mound in an NCAA Tournament game, you don’t mess with Texas. Christian, that is.