This weekend at Rip Griffin Park was a lesson in Perception vs. Reality for the Texas Tech baseball team.
By dropping a home series, the Red Raiders (22-9, 4-5 in Big 12 Conference) lost the advantage they’d gained from the previous week in winning a road series at TCU. Tech did the same thing last year, beating UT 2-1 in Austin then dropping two of three the next weekend at West Virginia.
In fact, Tech lost its next seven series in league play that season to finish eighth in the Big 12. Now, no one is saying this year’s Red Raiders are anywhere near that point of the season, but the fact is they are on a dangerous precipice here as the calender flips to April.
First, however, let’s get some perceptions out of the way.
■ Perception: Texas is not a good team, having come to Lubbock losing 12 straight series.
■ Reality: Texas, in fact, is a very good team with an outstanding pitching staff that will be hard to score on for anyone in the league. The Longhorns didn’t come to town ranked 12th in the nation just on reputation. They’re playing very fundamentally sound baseball right now.
■ Perception: Texas Tech is an NCAA Tournament team.
■ Reality: For the most part, yes. At 22-9 on the year and a 29 RPI by both Boyd’s World and Warren Nolan, if the season ended today, the Red Raiders would be in, but as a No. 3 seed somewhere. That’s what their projection has been all season.
■ Perception: Tech is a Top 30 team
■ Reality: Yes, but just barely. The only poll the Red Raiders are ranked in is the USA Today Coaches Poll at No. 25, dropping one spot after going 3-2 on the week. Tech has jumped into and out of the collegiate baseball poll twice, and likely will stay out for awhile unless it goes on a huge winning streak.
■ Perception: Tech has seven wins against Top 25 teams
■ Reality: True, but in reality Tech is 7-4 against those teams, and 7-5 if you count the loss to Houston early in the season before the Cougars were ranked. In six of its nine total losses this season, Tech has scored one run or fewer, including four shutouts.
■ Perception: Texas Tech will be competitive in every series, every game it plays this year
■ Reality: Most of the time, yes. Fridays right now are a little suspect the way the offense seems to take a night off against top-line pitching. But for the most part, this is a true statement.
But the reality is that competitive doesn’t always mean successful, and it’s right there that the line is drawn for the Red Raiders.
Every season since Tech last made the NCAAs, there’s been a point where it has turned. Sometimes it’s early, sometimes it’s late, sometimes it’s gradual.
Last year, Tech was riding high after beating UT two of three then going on the road and eating No. 20 Arizona State to improve to 15-8. Then, the Red Raiders lost 14 of their next 16 and played .500 ball the rest of the way to finish four games under .500 and six games under in Big 12 play.
Now, with a Tuesday road game against New Mexico in Midland then three at Oklahoma State, where Tech has won a series just once since 2004, the potential is there to have that slide.
Nothing this season, though, has provided any indication that slide will happen. The Red Raiders have been a true reflection of their coach, and Tim Tadlock has preached all season the importance of not letting one loss bleed into the next game.
“The whole team understands the game is about picking each other up,” Tadlock said after Sunday’s 5-2 extra-innings loss. “Guys have been good about doing that.”
That is the task ahead this week, picking each other up. This could end up being the first true test of overcoming adversity this season. Sure, the Red Raiders overcame the losses of Tim Proudfoot and Tyler Neslony to injury, both of whom returned this past week.
But this weekend will sting a little longer, not just because it’s a lost series but because it was a series everyone was looking forward to, a true test of where this team stood starting the second half of the season.
“I don’t think it defines our season by any stretch of the imagination,” Tadlock said of the UT series. “I think what we do at the end defines our season. We’ll continue to try to get better. We learn different things bout this team every day. We just have to keep plugging.”
Solving the inability to score against front-line, Friday-night pitching and not wasting scoring opportunities are two of the most glaring maladies this team faces. If they can solve these two issues, then the Red Raiders might just be ready to take that next step.
If not, then building consistency, at least on the scoreboard, will be a struggle the rest of the way.