Get ready to hear it all season from the Big 12 baseball coaches.
Tired of the third-place team in one of the nation’s top tier leagues having to sweat out making the NCAA postseason, the league’s skippers are on a mission in 2014 to make sure everyone knows just how good the Big 12 is this season. They’re bound and determined to see the conference return to the days when six or seven teams were locks to be in the 64-team NCAA tournament.
If that happens, Texas Tech head coach Tim Tadlock is certain his program will reach the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2004.
The Red Raiders, however, aren’t just looking to sneak in.
“To say we’re mature enough to bring it every week, and be fortunate enough get some bounces and a little luck, to say healthy, to be first, second or third in the league, then you’re talking about hosting regionals,” Tadlock said. “I’m not going to say we’re there because we haven’t been there in 10 years. But I can tell you this — the guys in that lockerroom are going to do everything they can to do it every week.
“Are we good enough to go to a regional? We need to win every week, and at the same time we’ve got a good perspective on it. We just have to stay with it and play every day.”
Not only does Tech’s decade-long absence from the playoffs give reason for pause when considering regional possibilities, but so does the personnel from the aspect that the Red Raiders finished eighth in the nine-team Big 12 in 2013 at 26-30 overall and 9-15 in Big 12 play.
Experience will be the biggest factor in Tech’s favor as the Red Raiders bring back their entire starting infield, a pair of starting outfielders and 69 percent of its innings pitched from a year ago.
But that hasn’t meant those starters, especially in the lineup, have been guaranteed starting spots. The Red Raiders finished in the top five in the league in runs, RBIs and walks but were by far and away the Big 12 leader in strikeouts with 407, and they finished ahead of only TCU in batting average at .259.
Tadlock said having gone through those struggles as a team has made each individual a better hitter, and he’s already seen examples of hitters being more competitive in scrimmages and not being afraid to battle in two-strike counts.
“It’s just focusing on getting a good pitch to hit every time you go up to the plate,” junior second baseman Bryant Burleson said. “Last year I think we had a bunch of guys trying to do too much and trying to win the game all in one at-bat. This year we’re focused on taking each at-bat one at a time, getting a good pitch to hit, putting a good swing on it and letting the result play out.”
Burleson, along with senior third baseman Jake Barrios, junior shortstop Tim Proudfoot and sophomore first baseman Eric Gutierrez, collectively have 756 at bats from last season, but only Barrios hit over 275. That has created competition among the offensive players and could also lead to some lineup experimentation through the early part of the season.
But Burleson (.275 avg. in 2013) has carried a solid summer over into the fall, and now the spring; Proudfoot (.233) has had a good spring camp; Barrios (.297) has been solid, after leading the team with 48 RBIs last year; and Gutierrez (.251) has picked up where he left off in 2013, when he led the team with seven home runs.
“I think we’re going to be better at finishing at-bats,” Gutierrez said. “Last year we had trouble doing that, but we’ve been doing better at it, just being hard to get out, less strikeouts, more walks and more hits. Basically, not taking that pitch right down the middle and leaving marginal pitches to hit.”
Those veterans, however, have been pushed. Tadlock has praised freshmen infielders Ryan Long from Crandall and Matt Broadbent from Cy-Woods and expects them to play a significant role this season. Also, competition has been fierce behind the plate between senior starter Mason Randolph, junior transfer Hunter Redman, the brother of former Texas Tech standout third baseman Reid Redman, and sophomore transfer Tyler Floyd from McLennan College.
The outfield also has experience in returning starting center fielder Devon Conley, who hit .283 and stole 15 of 16 bases, and part-time starter Todd Ritchie, who hit .315 in 73 at-bats.
But the outfield might also be the place where the competition is most fierce. Freshmen Anthony Lyons from Arlington Martin and Stephen Smith from Frenship have pushed hard for starting spots along with Adam Kirsch, a senior transfer from Florida International who sat out last year after hitting .287 with six home runs and 41 RBIs in 2012.
“I think they understand hitting better,” Tadlock said of his offense as a whole. “I think they understand they have to have a better plan, and sometimes you learn that plan by experience. The juniors right now are better than the sophomores because they’ve learned. They’ve heard it maybe now they’ve bought into it a little more.
“The freshmen will have their moments. They’ve shown a lot of aptitude and shown that they’ll do what we ask them to do. We talk about simplifying it and getting a good pitch to hit, and hitting it hard most of the time.”
But that’s only one side of the ball, and going into 2014, maybe not the deepest.
Ace right-hander Trey Masek is gone to pro baseball, but the Red Raiders may actually be more talented across the board between what is returning and the arms among the newcomers.
Look for the weekend starting rotation to start with junior right-hander Dominic Moreno and sophomore right-hander Matt Withrow. Despite missing starts due to various injuries, Moreno still finished 3-4 with a respectable 3.86 ERA, while Withrow as 5-3 with a 5.90 ERA as he struggled with walks, leading the team with 36.
After that, Tadlock said, it depends on the day as to which pitcher he thinks will be in the No. 3 starting spot, who will start in midweek games or who needs to be in the bullpen. Like the offense, many of the returning pitchers were freshmen getting their first taste of Division I competition.
Senior Jonny Drozd, who went 4-5 with a 3.48 ERA and was Tech’s best left-hander, along with junior Corey Taylor and sophomores Jonathan Tripp, Justin Bethard, Dalton Brown and Matt Custred combined for 217 of Tech’s 491 innings out of the bullpen.
But they’ve also been pushed by the likes of junior transfers Cameron Smith, a left-hander from New Mexico Junior College; Nick Pettus, a right-hander from Seminole (Okla.) State; and freshmen Ty Damron, a left-hander from Krum who was drafted in the 13th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Cooper right-hander Ryan Moseley.
There will need to be significant and immediate improvement, however, as the Red Raiders finished with a 4.86 ERA, worst in the conference by almost a whole run.
“A lot of times in the Big 12 with first-year guys, on the mound, there are a lot of guys that are good one week and very average the next week, and what motivates them is the bad week,” Tadlock said. “We need to be mature enough to understand and prepare the same way, good or bad. You have to be good enough to prepare the same way and be ready to go again, and those are the guys that put you in position to win 40, 45, 50 games.”
“I really think they have to have that mentality that somebody else is going to pitch if they don’t. I think it sets up well if guys just roll out (opening weekend) and shove on Indiana. That’s what they’re going to try to do, and if they do, our bullpen is going to be really good.”
From the beginning of spring practice in January, Tadlock seems to have instilled the belief that the Red Raiders could be one of the biggest underdogs in the country, even referring to the mantra of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks of “why not us?” That’s the confidence he feels in the talent he has assembled and the experience they gained from going through the rigors of Big 12 play a year ago.
If that all translates the right way in 2014, he’s sure that the Red Raiders won’t have to be that sixth- or seventh-place team to get into the NCAA postseason.
“I know this ... we’re not going to take a back seat to anybody,” Tadlock said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy and I’m not saying we’re going to hit a bunch of home runs. But we’ve got guys who are capable of having really tough at-bats and guys who are capable of running the bases well, and we have guys who can keep us in games (on the mound). But at the same time, it’s baseball, and you’ve got to show up ready to play.”
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