My work with ESPN, SEC Network and FOX Sports calls for a lot of time on the road. My first road trip of the 2017 college baseball season covered seven games in nine days in four different cities.
The trip began on Friday, March 24 as I headed to Big 12 Country for an early season showdown between Oklahoma State and TCU at Lupton Stadium in Fort Worth. OSU and TCU (along with Texas Tech) were among three Big 12 teams in the 2016 College World Series. Both teams were one win away from all-Big 12 championship series in Omaha. Oklahoma State lost back-to-back games to Arizona and TCU dropped two straight to eventual national champion Coastal Carolina.
The weekend series did not have quite the same magnitude but it was still an important early season test. TCU was still trying to find its way on offense, while Oklahoma State was battling some serious injuries with its pitching staff.
TCU swept the three-game series and jump-started the Horned Frogs to a 12-game winning streak, which ended this past weekend with a series loss at West Virginia.
This was my second trip to Lupton Stadium. I was fortunate to cover the 2015 NCAA Super Regional between Texas A&M and TCU. The Horned Frogs won the epic three-game series, capped by a 16-innnig thriller in game three, to advance to the College World Series.
TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle had a vison when he arrived in Fort Worth in 2004. He told the administration he would sell out the stadium in season tickets and take the Horned Frogs program to the national level. I am not sure they believed him at the time, but he was good on his word as Lupton Stadium is one of the top facilities in the nation with huge crowds. The three-game Super Regional series in 2015 is still one of the most electric college baseball series I have ever covered.
The food is good, too. On Sunday, TCU had an ice cream batting helmet giveaway to the first 500 fans. Free ice cream in a TCU mini batting helmet, really? I was all in!
Then there is the Ol’ South Pancake House on South University Boulevard. It’s a Texas-sized breakfast for a Texas-sized appetite. I chose the country fried steak and gravy with egg and pancakes. No choice is bad and the best part is they are open 24 hours a day!
The next stop was Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Ala., for the annual Capital City Classic between Alabama and Auburn. The game was televised on ESPNU. Auburn defeated Alabama 4-3 for its third straight win, and eighth in nine games at the Capital City Classic. Daniel Robert had a 2-run single and the AU bullpen tossed 4.2 scoreless innings against the Tide.
Another rival series awaited in the Magnolia State as Ole Miss hosted Miss. State at Swayze Field in Oxford.
Mississippi State grabbed the headlines with a series sweep over its in-state rival. MSU head coach Andy Cannizaro became the first Bulldogs skipper to sweep the Rebels in his first series since R. P. Patty in 1948.
MSU rallied for a 4-3 win in the opener and then posted a 2-1 win in game two on Friday. MSU starter Peyton Plumee could not escape a rocky first inning but kept the damage at a minimum. The MSU bullpen worked 8.2 innings in the series-clinching win.
The series also gave me my first chance to see Player of the Year candidate Brent Rooker and he was not disappointing. He was in the middle of every Miss. State scoring rally and had a superb weekend against the Rebels. He went 5-for-13 with two runs scored, three doubles, one home run and five RBIs. He hit a solo home run in the fifth inning of game one and added a game-tying RBI double in third inning in game two.
The two-day trip also allowed me to hit two of my favorite dining spots. For breakfast, I always venture over to Big Bad Breakfast on North Lamar in Oxford. As for lunch, the Oxford Square is full of culinary delights but I seem to find myself sitting at a table at Ajax Diner, where he menu options are both endless and affordable. My favorites are the country fried steak and meatloaf, which I alternate on trips.
Following the game, I headed for home, where I would be working Arkansas at Alabama on April 1-2. The 3-hiour drive from Oxford included listening to Jason Crowder call the MSU women’s basketball team’s Final Four win over mighty UConn. The overtime game ended as I passed through West Point. Hearing his final call gave me chills and an All-SEC National Championship Game made me proud.
After dropping the opener 7-1 on Friday, Alabama got the best of Arkansas with an identical 7-1 score on Saturday, April 1. The Crimson Tide scored four runs in the second inning and knocked out UA starter Trevor Stephan out of the game in the process. Bama lefty Dylan Duarte worked a career-high 8.1 innings in the win. Alabama’s 4-5-6 hitters were 6-for-11, 5 R, 2B, 3 RBIs in the win.
Arkansas took the series with an 8-5 win on Sunday as Carson Shaddy delivered a game-winning 2-run single in ninth inning. Chad Spanberger (4-for-5, 2 R, 2 RBI) and Dominic Fletcher (2-for-3, 2 RBI) paced the Hogs offense. Alabama got a solid day from shortstop Chandler Avant (4-for-5, 2 R, 2B).
The trip was now complete and the short ride home capped the nine-day, seven-game run.