About this time last year, I asked then-first-year Texas Tech baseball coach Tim Tadlock if playing at a high level and playing winning baseball were one in the same.
I’m not sure, at that point, if either of us knew the answer simply because we hadn’t seen much of either to that point. But we agreed that you can’t play winning baseball without playing at a high level.
Going into the finals break in 2013 the Red Raiders were 23-27 and 7-14 in Big 12 play.
Going into the finals break in 2014 — with one game left today against Dallas Baptist — the Red Raiders are 36-16 and 11-10 in the Big 12. That’s because, aside from a few blowout losses, the Red Raiders have played consistent, winning baseball at a high level.
Until this weekend.
A team that appeared to be surging toward the end of the season came to a sudden, loud halt in Lawrence, Kansas this weekend as the Jayhawks pretty much had their way with the Red Raiders, and as a result, Tech is now mired in its first losing streak of more than two games this season.
Last year, Tech had four losing streaks of three games or longer, so it’s easy to see what a difference a year makes.
But this year’s team had a tremendous chance to gain a solid foothold in the picture to be an NCAA regional host. The RPI was high, so was the standing in the Big 12. The Red Raiders were right on the bubble — not just of getting into the tournament but of hosting a regional.
Were we premature about that? Absolutely not. Are the chances of hosting a regional gone at this point? Pretty much.
Because for the first time this season, the Red Raiders had an extended stretch against the same team in which they didn’t do what they’ve preached all season long — playing the game the right way.
And, surprisingly, it came from what has been considered this team’s strength all season, pitching. The Red Raiders issued 21 free baserunners to the Jayhawks via 14 walks and seven hit batters. By comparison, KU pitchers allowed just one walk and did not hit a batter.
To put that into perspective, Tech pitching was allowing just 2.7 walks and 1.04 hit batters per game going into the weekend, and the offense was garnering 4.3 walks and 1.3 hit batters.
Of those 21 free passes issued the Tech pitchers, 10 of them scored. That’s too much to ask of any offense to compensate, even one that was as hot as Tech’s last week, which, incidentally, was cooled off tremendously by Jayhawk pitchers to the tune of eight total runs and a .248 batting average.
Not counting Friday’s 11-3 loss since the pitching took out the offense’s chance to keep in close, the Red Raiders had just four hits with runners in scoring position, and only one of those produced an RBI. Tech had at least seven empty at-bats that failed to drive in or move a runner in scoring position, and three base-running mistakes that killed rallies.
The worst thing from Tech’s standpoint, however, will be that, after today, they’ll have eight days to think about what could have been, and if they don’t take care of business against at Dallas Baptist, then things could get worse.
If the Red Raiders started the Big 12 Championships today, they would be the sixth seed, falling from third at the beginning of the weekend. That’s how volatile the league is this season.
There have been 12 sweeps in Big 12 conference play this season out of a total of 29 series played to this point. That’s one out of every five series that ends in a sweep. Every team in the league has swept at least one series except the three teams at the bottom — Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma, who have been a victim of seven of the 12 sweeps.
Only Oklahoma State and TCU have yet to be swept, which is why they’re tied for the conference lead.
Right now, Tech is still in good position for an NCAA tournament berth. The RPI going into Monday is 16, one more win in Big 12 play assures a .500 record, and two more wins gets Tech to 38, and no team in the Big 12 has been left out of the postseason picture with 38 or more victories.
But the Red Raiders are going to have to hunker down for these last four games, especially the final weekend of the regular season against West Virginia (May 14-16). A lot of baseball will be played around the Red Raiders between now and then, and Tech could rise or fall in the standings depending on what happens, especially as the Mountaineers visit the Jayhawks this weekend.
Then again, this break may come at just the right time. Of the four games remaining, Dallas Baptist has an RPI of 35, while West Virginia is at 24 after their series win over Texas. So none of the four remaining games will hurt Tech’s RPI.
Tech should still be a solid No. 2 seed in the NCAA as it’s RPI won’t fall below No. 32 the rest of the way. If the slide continues, however, the view the NCAA committee has of Tech will diminish, and then that’s a bubble the Red Raiders don’t want to be on.
On the season, though, Tech has been good about flushing losses and playing the next game in front of it.
We’ll see how quickly the Red Raiders can get back to that high level.