Whenever Texas Tech head baseball coach Dan Spencer was asked at last year’s Big 12 Championships about his teams’ NCAA tournament chances, his answers were consistent, and not done without careful thought and a solid premise.
He consistently told whoever asked, he felt his team was in, and it was based on analyzing the past history of the Big 12 where teams with similar RPIs (50), win totals and solid play toward the end of the regular season had always gotten in.
So when the Red Raiders, who were 33-25 and 12-15 in the Big 12 in 2011 and finished just one game back of fifth-place Baylor, a team it had beaten two of three in Waco and did get in, were omitted from the field of 64 for the seventh straight season, it left Tech’s fourth-year head coach puzzled.
Even time spent analyzing some numbers of the 64 teams didn’t answer any questions. But it did leave him with one simple conclusion.
“We need to do a better job of making sure ... so you’ve got to kick the door down,” Spencer said. “We needed to do more.”
Entering 2012, the Red Raiders have more. More talent. More experience. More depth. Three key ingredients that have been meshed together over the past three seasons to form what may be Tech’s best team since it last made the regionals in 2004.
The Red Raiders return 19 of 26 letterwinners from including, including 12 pitchers, among whom are all three of last year’s weekend starters as well as 80.1 percent of its innings pitched, plus five every-day starters in the field.
“This team is older this year, got a lot of juniors and a couple of seniors and some good sophomores back from last year,” said junior center fielder Barrett Barnes, who led the team in home runs last year with 10 and was third in RBIs with 38. “We have the experience of having gone through the Big 12, and that competition will help with the consistency and the maturity and knowing what we can do.”
Despite the increased depth, Spencer said staying healthy will remain a key to the Red Raiders’ success. It was a major factor in how Tech approached last season, losing cleanup hitter Scott LeJeune and Friday night left-handed starter Daniel Coulombe to Tommy John surgery the week before Big 12 Conference play started. Then, Tech also lost leadoff hitter and stolen base leader Jamordrick McGruder at second base for the final two Big 12 series after he suffered a broken bone in his hand.
By the end of the year, Tech’s starting rotation consisted of two true freshmen in right-handers David Paiz and Trey Masek and redshirt freshman right-hander Duke von Schamann, who was arguably Tech’s best pitcher the final month of the season.
Now, however, Tech enters the season with a healthy Coulombe (0-2, 3.98), who has looked good in spring practices, as well as newcomer Shane Broyles, a right-handed transfer from Temple College who was Tech’s top pitcher coming out of the fall, and left-hander Rusty Shellhorn, who sat out last season after transferring from Washington State.
They’ll pair with second-team all-American closer John Neely (9-1, 2.97 ERA, 7 saves) and a bullpen with six pitchers who logged at least 20 innings last year.
“We know it’s like Spencer says, we just have to kick the door down, throw strikes, attack the hitters and do what we’ve been doing all fall and spring,” Masek said. “We’ve come out firing on all cylinders and we hope to carry that into the season.”
The veteran presence is not limited to the pitching staff. After Barnes and McGruder, who have a combined 211 starts in two years, Tech also has senior third baseman Reid Redman, senior first baseman Stephen Hagen and catchers Bo Altobelli, Mason Randolph and Kevin Whitehead, who combined for 89 starts either behind the plate or elsewhere.
But the biggest return could be that of LeJeune, a two-time All-Big 12 selection as a freshman and sophomore who played just one game before leaving the team due to personal reasons.
There’s just one thing missing. Most of Tech’s roster was still playing youth baseball the last time the Red Raiders made the postseason beyond the Big 12 Championships. Breaking through has been hard for a team that has no positive recent history that might influence the NCAA selection committee.
Having analyzed the numbers from last year, Spencer said there’s an easy way to make everything else a moot point.
“Let’s go win the Big 12, and that way there’s no doubt,” Spencer said he’s told the players. “Doing it and talking about it are two different things. There’s a process and a practice and a plan for how you get there, and these kids understand that. I think they’re willing to take the lead. This club certainly does not lack for confidence.
“So we do need to kick the door down to get back in, then down the road, you’re having solid seasons and you get in because you have a reputation of being a tournament team. But we do need to do more.”