The halfway mark of the 2014 college baseball season hits this week after Texas Tech plays two midweek games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Up to this point, the Red Raiders have survived the first half. Heck, they’ve actually done more than that. The Red Raiders are off to their best start since 2006 at 19-7 and 3-3 in the Big 12 Conference after this past weekend’s 2-1 series victory at TCU.
The only other times Tech has started this well since joining the Big 12 were in 1999 and 1997, and in both those years Tech ended up hosting an NCAA regional.
Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Red Raiders have a long way to go and about a 10-year track record of missing the NCAA postseason to overcome before we get that far. But, if Tech does somehow find itself in that position toward the end of the season, count on there being an aggressive bid made to host a regional at Rip Griffin Park.
First things first, however, for the Red Raiders, and that’s putting together a similar second half of the season.
There’s just one thing missing in that equation — solving the Friday pitching situation.
Not their own, the other team’s.
Of Tech’s seven losses, four have come in series or tournament openers — 1-0 vs. Indiana, 9-0 vs. Houston, 1-0 vs. Baylor, 1-0 vs. TCU.
In each of those losses, the opponent had a legitimate, experienced Friday night guy. Joey DeNato of Indiana and Brandon Finnegan of TCU are sure-fire first-round picks, and both are likely Top 10-15 material. Dillon Newman from Baylor was as good as any pitcher Tech has faced this year, and Houston starter Aaron Garza is 6-0 with a 1.17 ERA.
Tech has had a Friday starter in Dominic Moreno who has matched all four starters pitch for pitch each time out, but hasn’t gotten the run support. He has taken the loss in all four of these games, and in his six starts on the year Tech has scored just 11 runs total, eight in an extra-inning victory over New Mexico State.
After this past weekend at TCU, in which the Red Raider roughed up two pitchers who came into the weekend with sub-2.00 ERAs, Tech has proven it can play the game at a high level in just about every other capacity. The Red Raiders rank second in the Big 12 in ERA (2.96) and in fielding percentage (.979).
According to Tech statistical guru Scott Lacefield, the Red Raiders are the only team in the country in Division I with 19 victories, six wins over Top 25 teams and that opened its conference season with back-to-back road series. The six wins over Top 25 opponents are also the most against ranked opponents through 26 games in the Big 12 era.
But they have to do more, or more directly, keep doing what they’re doing.
Tech begins the week with pseudo-RPI of 14-15, depending on who you go by. However, the Red Raiders moved up just one spot in the USA Today coaches poll to No. 24, and are still unranked by Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game.
Yet Texas, this week’s opponent and the team that finished last in the Big 12 a year ago, is ranked in all three polls. Not that the Longhorns don’t deserve it, coming into the week at 19-6 and 1-2 in the Big 12 and with the No. 1 pitching staff (1.91 ERA) and defense (.980) in the league.
But the Horns also lost their opening league series two weeks ago to Kansas — at home — and come in looking very similar to last season, with great pitching and defense but an offense that is hitting just .253 on the season, including .185 in conference play. Yet they’re ranked for a reason other than talent.
Texas has the reputation as a perennial power. Texas Tech hasn’t been to the NCAAs in a decade.
The Red Raiders have been close to doing so, finding themselves on the bubble a couple of times but unable to breakthrough, and each year there seems to be either a 10-12 game swoon or a rough conference season that keeps them out.
So Tech is going to have to kick the door in to get invited to the party, and that means a second half similar to the first.
The good thing for Tech is, the second half of the season sets up favorably.
After opening Big 12 play with back-to-back road series, the Red Raiders now have four of their final six, including three of their final four, at home. By the end of the weekend, Tech will have faced three of the top four pitching staffs in terms of ERA in the Big 12, with Tech being that fourth team.
Maybe the most impressive thing about what the Red Raiders have done in the first half is they’ve done so with key players out. Shortstop Tim Proudfoot and outfielder Tyler Neslony remain sidelined with injuries, and no definitive return date has been announced for either.
Tech will have 17 home games, nine road games and two neutral site games (vs. New Mexico at Midland, vs. TCU at Abilene) in the second half of the year.
If the Red Raiders have the kind of second half to the season they had in the first and finish at or above .500 in conference play, then that should be good enough to keep them around the top 32 in RPI in the country, which would almost assure them of making the NCAAs.
But having to win series by winning the final two games each weekend is a tough way to live. Somehow, someway, the Red Raiders need to find a way to put together a complete weekend in all three phases, which will be easier said than done against the likes of Dillon Peters, Wes Benjamin, Harrison Musgrave and others.
As of right now, winning consistently on Fridays is about the only thing missing.