Thursday wasn’t the first time head coach Dan Spencer had used the words Big 12 Championship since he’s been associated with Texas Tech baseball.
But it was the first time he used the words regarding his Red Raider club in terms of actually competing for one.
“We want to be in contention for a Big 12 championship and for the first time we can legitimately say that we can be in that picture based on who we have and as long as we stay healthy,” Spencer said before the Red Raiders began fall workouts Thursday. “To win the league you’ve got to be consistent. You can have a bad weekend but you can’t have two if you want to win this league. Those are the things we strive for is to be consistent, and in our league if your consistent enough to win our league you have a chance to win the national championship. That’s our goal and that’s where we strive to be.”
This will be one of the most experienced clubs since Spencer took over as head coach in 2008. The Red Raiders — 33-25 in 2011 and 12-15 in the Big 12 Conference — return more than 80 percent of their innings pitched from last season, including all three arms who finished last season as weekend starters as well as closer John Neely. Also back are eight players who started at least 32 games last year, including leading hitter Reid Redman (.320) and three former freshmen all-Americans in infielder Jamodrick McGruder (.293), outfielder Barrett Barnes (.290) and two-way player David Paiz (.284).
It is that wealth of experience keeps Tech from another rebuilding mode going into the fall.
“This should be a special year,” said Barnes, who led the Red Raiders last year with 10 home runs and was second in RBIs with 38. “We’ve got a lot of good guys. It’s an environment (where) the feel, the vibe’s a little different than last year. I think if we keep working the way we’ve been since we got on campus, we’ll be fine this year.”
But it’s not all experience for the Red Raiders. There are big holes to fill, mainly at shortstop where Tech’s first gold-glove winner, Kelby Tomlinson, has turned pro. Vying for his spot are a junior and as many as five freshmen.
In fact, 14 true freshmen and six junior college transfers are among the 48 players on the fall roster.
“I’m concerned about shortstop,” Spencer said. “I’m concerned about making sure we find a left-handed bat or two to hit consistently in the middle of the lineup. I think our strength is we should be very good at the front of the game. I feel like offensively our speed is proven and we should be good there. I like us at the end of the game. We bring back an effective guy at the end and the one thing that will change is that he will have more company down there because we’re deeper down there. The challenge is to make sure we’re doing it right.”
For the first time since the announcement was made on Monday, Spencer addressed the firing of assistant coach Trent Petrie.
Spencer declined to get into the specifics of why Petrie is no longer with the program, but said a situation arose that brought the move that Spencer said was “in the best interest of the club.
“I can say that ... he did not break a law or NCAA rule,” Spencer said. “He’s not wanted by anybody. It was just an incident that occurred, and we’ve addressed it.”
Petrie completed his fourth season as the Red Raiders’ recruiting coordinator and defensive/base running coach. He came to Tech as an assistant the same time as Spencer, both spending a season under former head coach Larry Hays before Hays retired following the 2008 season. Spencer was promoted as Hays’ replacement and retained Petrie.
Under Petrie, Tech was second in the Big 12 defensively during the 2008 season with a .971 fielding percentage, and ranked 23rd in the nation in double plays turned and 28th in stolen bases.
But in the last three seasons, the Red Raiders have never finished better than seventh in fielding percentage, and have finished in the top five in stolen bases just once, which was in 2011 when their 91 steals ranked fourth.
“He’s a great guy and meant a lot to the program,” Spencer said. “We wish Trent the best. He’s a big part of the Red Raider family ... and I know he’s going to land on his feet because he’s a good coach.”
The most unique aspect of this fall’s workouts is the Red Raiders’ batting helmet serve a dual purpose as renovation construction is ongoing at Dan Law Field.
Since the end of the 2011 season, the press box and suites have been torn down, and the FieldTurf along the wall between the dugouts has been peeled back to make room for additional seating. The screen protecting the stands from baseballs remains in place — for now.
“From the pictures, it looks like a lot of fun. It looks pretty dull now,” Barnes said. “But in looking at the pictures Spence has, it’s definitely something to look forward to.”
Spencer doesn’t feel the construction will be a distraction.
“I don’t think it will affect our itinerary, Spencer said. “It will affect what it looks like ... when the backstop comes down, that will be interesting. But we’re not going to miss any days of practice.”
Future of Big 12
If some rumors regarding conference realignment come true, the baseball schedule could be one of the last things held under the banner of the Big 12.
The talk of Tech going to the Pac 12, or any other conference, has not seeped into the minds of the players very much.
“It’s out of our control and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Barnes said. “We have to worry about Texas Tech and doing what we’re supposed to do and making sure we get into a regional.”
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