For days last spring, TCU held out hope Luken Baker could return to the lineup in time for the baseball playoffs.
But he knew better.
The moment his outstretched arm had been hit by a baserunner, tearing ligament and muscle and fracturing bone, in a May 12 game at Oklahoma, the TCU hitting star knew what it meant.
“Right when I got hit, I knew” he said. “The first thing that went through my head was, ‘My season’s done. I’m done.’ ”
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It turned out he was right, although the Frogs were correct to hold out hope — the injury had been to his left arm, and if the hairline fracture was small enough and the muscle and ligament tears healed quickly, there was a chance.
But on the eve of the playoffs three weeks later, TCU announced Baker would not play again, and the Horned Frogs went on to the College World Series without their All-American first baseman and DH. They fell in the semifinals to Florida and first-round Major League pick Alex Faedo, who beat them twice in seven days.
“At the end of the day, our team accomplished about what it was capable of, and then the baseball gods kind of got us at the end,” coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “But it would have been fun to see him out there, that’s for sure.”
Now healthy and cleared for all baseball activity, Baker has been working at first base and hitting since TCU opened fall practice Sept. 19. He and the Frogs scrimmage a team from Canada at 4 p.m. Friday at Lupton Stadium.
“It feels normal,” Baker said of his swing, which has accounted for 19 home runs and 103 RBIs in two seasons since arriving as a heralded two-way prospect in 2016. “At first, it was stiff. Felt a little weird. Hadn’t used it in a while. After the first day or two, it felt back to normal. It’s sort of like riding a bike. If you don’t ride it for a couple of years, it sort of feels weird when you start. But you always remember how to do it.”
The swing looks the same to teammates.
“Same old Luken,” outfielder Connor Wanhanen said. “You know what you’re going to get with him. Incredible attitude, really cares about each individual person. And you know what he’s going to do to a baseball when he’s in the box.”
But the night of the injury remains vivid. Baker was reaching for a throw from third base that began tailing up the line as OU’s Brandon Zaragoza, a fast runner, got closer and closer.
“Obviously, I’ve caught the ball up the line and had my arm twisted before. But that one, it was tailing away, it was up the line, and I got my glove caught in the guy’s jersey or arm pit or something and it yanked it back,” Baker said. “I’ve made that play a thousand times before. Obviously, you can look back and say you should have done this or that, but it is what it is. If the guy was a half-step slower, it doesn’t happen. You see it all the time, and an injury doesn’t happen. It just happened to happen right there.”
At an Oklahoma City hospital, Baker and his parents learned the extent of the damage. His teammates learned soon, and word spread. By the next morning, even the opposing Sooners were checking on him.
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“Austin O’Brien, who had a similar injury earlier that year, came up to the training room the next day,” Baker said. “He just said, ‘Hey man, I know how much this sucks and how bad it hurts, but you’re going to be all good.’ He was just there to talk. It was really neat. It showed what kind of guy he was. I’ve stayed in touch with him a little bit. He was awesome to do that.”
In the midst of Baker’s recovery was the Omaha experience. A year earlier at the College World Series, he had homered twice.
“All I could do at that point was be there for my teammates and cheer them on,” he said. “And obviously they played awesome. I don’t think me being in or out of the lineup changed much during the postseason. We made the College World Series and ran into a greate pitcher. That was the tale of the season. It sucked standing there in the dugout watching those two games against Florida. Obviously, I wished I could be in the box. But I didn’t dwell on it.”
“To do better than I have the past two,” he said, asked his goals for 2018. “I’m looking forward to seeing live pitching again. I haven’t seen that since May. I’m really excited to get back and help the team win a national championship.”
TCU baseball vs. Ontario Blue Jays
4 p.m. Friday, Lupton Stadium