From the beginning of the 2011 baseball season to the end, there was a general belief in the Texas Tech baseball clubhouse that an NCAA tournament berth was attainable.
Tech's exclusion from the postseason for the seventh-consecutive season led to frustration and disappointment.
"There needs to be pain because that's how you get better," coach Dan Spencer said. "There needs to be pain because then there's expectations. The guys expected to get in, so they're hurt. Those expectations come before you actually do it, so there's a certain pain in the growth process. If you're playing out the string of your last games and there's no pain, then you didn't have a very good club to begin with."
Pain, motivation, call it what you will, but Spencer believes coming up short this season will play a huge factor in for the Red Raiders in 2012.
So will experience and talent.
The Red Raiders won't face a major rebuilding effort either on the mound or at the plate for the first time since Spencer came to Lubbock as an assistant in 2008. Tech is guaranteed to lose one player - senior infielder Nick Popescu - but Spencer also expects to lose shortstop Kelby Tomlinson, pitcher John Neely, and possibly infielder Stephen Hagen and pitcher Robbie Kilcrease to the draft.
That means a majority of the team will be back. Several key athletes will also be back from injury, including infielder and leadoff hitter Jamodrick McGruder and left-handed starting pitcher Daniel Coulombe.
It's also why the incoming recruiting class has just eight players, which gives Tech an advantage next spring in terms of experience.
"With the healthy guys (back), the impact guys, I think we'll be right back in that room watching and having a feeling, an idea that we're in and just wondering where we're going, or if we'll be good enough to host," Spencer said. "I do feel we are on the cusp of being that team and putting ourselves in position to hopefully be that team regularly."
Big steps to take
As Spencer pointed out, the gap from seventh to third in the Big 12 Conference this past season wasn't that great, just three games, or two wins. That's the difference between not getting into the NCAA tournament and being a No. 2 seed. And there are plenty of games in 2011 where Tech had a chance to be on the other side of that equation. Nine of Tech's 15 conference losses were by three runs or fewer, and six of those nine losses were by one run.
The goal becomes making sure Tech's resume in 2012 is void of doubt, taking away any chance the NCAA can scrutinize the Red Raiders and leave them out of the tournament again.
The way to do that, Spencer said, is competing for a conference championship.
"We're closer to being a team that competes for a conference championship, but whether that's next year's team I'm not for sure," Spencer said.
"But we do need to make a move. We've been fifth before, but our goal is not fifth. It's to win the league."
Tools in place
Because of depth on the mound and a continuing effort to increase the talent level, Texas Tech's team ERA in 2011 dropped almost two full runs from 2010, going from 6.70 to 4.92. Spencer credits half of that drop to the new BBCOR bat that had an effect on offenses nationwide, but the other half to his staff.
Spencer began the year with experience in his starting rotation with two juniors and a sophomore, but by the time the year ended, he was starting three freshmen.
Duke von Schamann (5-0, 3.92 ERA) was arguably Tech's best pitcher by the end of the season, allowing two earned runs in his last three starts. Trey Masek (5-3, 4.70) entered the rotation to begin conference play and stayed there, leading the team in innings pitched (67). Those two are expected to anchor the rotation next year.
David Paiz (3-5, 6.93) a two-way player, struggled down the stretch with fatigue, and Spencer said he will likely have a different role next year, possibly as the closer. Also returning will be key members of the bullpen - right-handers Aaron Corwin (1-0, 3.28), Brennan Stewart (2-1, 3.40), Jamen Parten (1-4, 6.10) and Jerad McCrummen (1-1, 6.75) and left-handers Zach Fowler (1-1, 3.38) and Ben Flora (0-3, 7.54).
"We need to make another jump like we did, the same jump, but with out the bats," Spencer said. "(Pitching improvement) comes from within the program and the good thing is for the first time since I've been here ... we bring back enough where we don't have to rebuild this summer like we did last year."
While the new bats improved Tech's ERA, it severely hurt the Red Raiders' batting average. Tech fell from .307 in 2010 to .279 in 2011 with only one regular expected to return who hit over .300 (Reid Redman, .320). Part of that, Spencer said, was losing cleanup hitter Scott LeJeune after one game and never replacing that middle-of-the-order anchor in the lineup.
The Red Raiders are expected to bring back returning starters at third (Redman), second (McGruder), center field (Barrett Barnes) and catcher (Kevin Whitehead, Bo Altobelli) plus part-time outfield starters Paiz and Andre Wheeler and reserves Mason Randolph and Nick Hanslik.
Improving defensively in the corner outfield positions and finding a solid bat to protect the middle of the order will be key priorities in the offseason, Spencer said.
If that happens, and if the injured players return to full form, Tech could erase the NCAA selection committee's doubts.
"Barring the unforseen - injuries, draft, whatever, it will be our most talented team and its time for us to take that next step," Spencer said.
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