Photo by Sam Bruton

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Brian Howard’s brilliant start highlighted a 6-0 win over Kansas to avoid elimination from the Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City.

Howard was as dominant as he has ever been in his long, illustrious Horned Frog career. The senior started his night by hitting Kansas leadoff hitter Rudy Karre on the first pitch of the game, but he went on to strike out a career-high 12 Jayhawks in a four-hit shutout. Howard has been a key cog in the Frogs’ deep postseason runs the last several years, and he continued that trend in his first postseason start of 2017.

“Obviously, it was a great night for Brian Howard,” said head coach Jim Schlossnagle. “He was outstanding. He has been a big game pitcher for us his entire career, and that was certainly needed by everybody.”

Brian Howard pitches during his complete game shutout of Kansas. (Photo by Sam Bruton)

The Frogs gave Howard an early cushion with a four-run bottom of the first. Kansas starter Sean Rackoski walked the first three Horned Frogs he faced, before two-run singles from Nolan Brown and Ryan Merrill sandwiched an error on the Jayhawk shortstop Matt McLaughlin.

“We were very fortunate in the first inning,” Schlossnagle said. “[Kansas] set the table with those walks, and then we had a couple choppers get through the infield and that was enough for Brian.”

On the error, Brown collided with McLaughlin at the second base bag and was forced to leave the game.

“He took a pretty good knee to the head there,” Schlossnagle said. “We’ll see how he feels. He felt OK throughout the rest of the game. They are going to evaluate him in the morning, and if there is any question, he won’t play the rest of the weekend. The most important thing is that we are as healthy as we can be next weekend.”

TCU added a couple runs its lead in the fourth when Connor Wanhanen scored after tripling and Austen Wade scored on a wild pitch.

“It awesome to have [the starting pitchers] coming out there and filling it up,” Wanhanen said. “That’s when we get excited as position players. We get to stay on defense as little as we can so we can get back and get some runs.”

With the 6-0 advantage, Howard cruised through his outing. He picked up multiple strikeouts in the second through fifth innings including three in the fourth. Despite the punch outs, Howard did not record a 1-2-3 inning until the sixth, causing his pitch count to inflate to 80 through five innings.

In the sixth through ninth innings, Howard was economical with his pitches. He set down 12 of 13 batters on 37 pitches to finish out his ninth win of the season.

“Our mentality changed a little bit, and we were trying to force the issue a little bit more,” Howard said. “I probably got a little too cute in the first couple innings wanting to do a little too much. Once I started establishing the bottom of the zone late in the game, I got some early outs, some quick contact. That felt good and was what was able to get me through the game.”

With the Frogs needing three wins Saturday and Sunday to come out of the loser’s bracket to win the tournament, every inning that the starting pitchers can get through is important. TCU’s bullpen will be stretched to its limits in a potential run to the Big 12 Tournament title, so Howard completing the entire game and giving the bullpen the night off could prove to be important.

After two straight scoreless performances from the Frogs’ starting pitching, TCU will look for the rest of the starting pitching staff to stay on that roll.

“We haven’t played three or four consecutive days of really good baseball, and the reason that is the case is because the starting pitching hasn’t been consistent,” Schlossnagle said. “The game begins and ends with starting pitching in my mind.”

TCU will look to take two games from Texas Saturday, starting at 12:30 p.m. If the Frogs can take game one, they will come back later in the day to attempt to advance to Sunday’s championship game. Mitchell Traver is slated to take the ball in game one with Haylen Green being the expected starter if the Frogs force a game two.