OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Roommates Brian Howard and Ryan Merrill are going to have plenty to talk about around their apartment whenever they and the rest of the TCU Horned Frogs return to Fort Worth.
Howard matched his career high with 12 strikeouts in seven-plus innings. Merrill, playing before friends and family in his hometown, homered to start a three-run third inning and the roomies helped keep the Frogs’ season going with a 4-1 win over Texas A&M in a College World Series elimination game Tuesday.
“Big Game Howie,” as Howard is known around the program, flummoxed the Aggies with pinpoint location of his fastball and cutter. The Oakland Athletics’ eighth-round draft pick struck out six of the first seven batters he faced and held the Aggies scoreless until Braden Shewmake’s RBI groundout in the sixth inning.
“I think today was probably the best stuff I had all season,” Howard said. “I’m pumped I didn’t walk anybody. I didn’t give up any free bases. I felt like I was attacking the strike zone from the beginning, and I was able to carry that through.”
The Frogs (48-16) avoided going 0-2 for the first time in five all-time CWS appearances. The Aggies (41-23) have gone two-games-and-out in their last three appearances and have lost eight in a row in Omaha.
Texas A&M starter Stephen Kolek (4-5) was knocked out in 2 2/3 innings, matching his shortest start of the season. Kaylor Chafin held the Frogs to three singles the rest of the way.
Howard (12-3) left after George Janca doubled leading off the eighth, having struck out 12 for the second time in four starts.
“He was coming in both sides of the plate with his fastball, and he was getting us to chase a little bit,” the Aggies’ Cole Bedford said. “He’s an adrenaline guy. When he gets in a groove, he’s got good stuff.”
Merrill graduated from Millard West High School in Omaha and passed on a chance to walk on at Nebraska, instead playing two years at nearby Iowa Western Community College. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in the 15th round in 2015, but instead of signing, he went to TCU for the chance to someday return to his hometown to play in the CWS.
He made the all-tournament team last year, and he made another memory in his first at-bat Tuesday, drilling Kolek’s 1-2 pitch off the back wall in the right-field bullpen for his sixth homer of the season and seventh of his TCU career. Evan Skoug doubled in a run and Elliott Barzilli had an RBI single to make it 4-0.
“I don’t hit many home runs, so I was sprinting,” Merrill said. “As soon as I saw it leave, that’s when it just hit me how cool that experience is.”
Howard, who normally keeps to himself in the dugout on days he’s pitching, said he went nuts when he saw the ball leave the yard.
“He always tells me stories about how ‘I saw them win the national championship here’ and all that stuff,” Howard said. “He’s been here since he was a kid and to see him do that was really special.”
Since the Big 12 Tournament, Howard is 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 30 innings. Howard’s 12 strikeouts tied for most in a CWS game since the event moved to TD Ameritrade Park in 2011.
The game matched teams located 175 miles apart and rivals since their days in the old Southwest Conference. TCU won three-game super regionals against the Aggies in 2015 and 16, and beat them 11-10 in 15 innings in their regular-season meeting. The Aggies still lead the all-time series 162-94-4.
This is the third straight year TCU has eliminated the Aggies from the NCAA Tournament. It’s the eighth time one team has eliminated the same team in three consecutive seasons in any round of the tournament.
IT’S ABOUT THE K’S
TCU, with 14 strikeouts on Tuesday, has had 10 or more in 28 games this season. The Frogs had 40 strikeouts in 24 innings against the Aggies this season.