The Texas Tech baseball team officially entered game week on Sunday with the season opener set for Friday at 6 p.m. against Northern Illinois.
First-year head coach Tim Tadlock said last week he would have a pretty good idea by the end of the weekend how his starting lineup and rotation would work out, but also said he’s not going to be rigid in that players who perform throughout the season won’t get a chance to start.
“We’re pretty close,” Tadlock said on Thursday. “I think this weekend is important and we let them all know that (Wednesday). This weekend is not necessarily going to give us all the answers because you never have all the answers. But the weekend should be very important for a lot of guys on the team in terms of how the weekend shapes up, who starts on Friday.
“At the same time, I think we’ll always be a club throughout the lineup that we’ve got enough depth that guys can play and we’ll use more than just one guy at each spot.”
One veteran who looks to be almost a lock with the way he’s hit the ball is former Coronado standout Blake Bass, who played mostly in a pinch-hitting role and hit .174 with two doubles and two RBIs. But he’s been one of the best hitters from the fall to the spring so far.
“It feels good,” Bass said. “Last year I just tried to get better and get more experience so I’d be ready to start. I’ll get the opportunity this year and I just need to get it going. The seniors and the juniors last year, the older guys, they gave me a lot of information and a lot of techniques and stuff to help me perform better. That’s really helped me.”
The majority of positions, however, have had good competition with several players vying for starting roles.
“We’ve got eight or nine guys that can go play the outfield, and we’ve got four or five guys that can play center on any given day, at a high level,” Tadlock said. “We might be thin at some spots in the infield but we’ll do the best we can and get ready the best we can.”
One of Tadlock and his staff’s biggest priorities on the recruiting trail, both in trying to form this year’s team and for the future, is finding high-velocity pitchers.
He may have a couple on staff already. Junior right-hander Trey Masek, who entered the season as the favorite to take over the Friday-night starting role, was consistently in the low to mid-90s this summer playing in the Cape Cod League, and thanks to a sharp curveball is listed by Baseball America as the No. 2 MLB draft prospect out of the Big 12.
Freshman Matt Withrow out of Midland Christian was 93-96 mph two weeks ago according to Tadlock, giving Tech the possibility of two power arms on the weekend.
Then there’s the bullpen, where Tadlock likes his depth. Leading that group is left-hander Andre Wheeler, one of only four left-handed pitchers on the staff this season. Tadlock said Wheeler has throwing particularly well the last two weeks and has given the bullpen a shot in the arm.
“We’ve got plenty of depth and plenty of arms in the pen,” Tadlock said. “It’s not like we have to have a set middle relief guy, a definite late-inning guy. Every team would like to have an established closer. But at the same time you’re talking about a 56-game schedule and we need to win games. So we’ll take them one at a time and whatever role we need out there we’ll role someone out there.”
Wheeler, who last year was 1-0 with a 4.15 ERA and 17 walks in 171/3 innings, said he’s ready for whatever role he is needed, which will likely be a leader in the bullpen.
“I think it’s good,” Wheeler said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys but they’ve come out and shown a lot of maturity. That will be the key for us with a lot of freshmen on staff. We don’t have as many lefties but we’ll be OK. We have a lot of righties that can get lefties out.”
Texas Tech’s opening weekend will consist of a four-team round robin tournament at Rip Griffin Park. The Brooks Wallace Memorial Classic brings Northern Colorado, BYU and Northern Illinois to Lubbock with each team playing four games over three days.
This will be the first time for Northern Colorado, one of the few baseball-playing schools, to visit Tech as the two schools have never met on the diamond. Located in Greeley, the Bears compete in the Great West Conference with the likes of UT-Pan American and Houston Baptist, but next season will become an affiliate member of the Western Athletic Conference.
The Red Raiders are familiar with the other two teams in the tournament. Tech holds a 4-2 record against BYU, splitting a pair of games with the Cougars in 2011. Tech won the first game 7-4 and lost the second 8-3.
Northern Illinois is a frequent visitor to Lubbock. This will be the Huskies’ fifth trip to Lubbock since 2004, where Tech holds a 14-2 overall advantage. The Red Raiders have won eight straight in the series.
The Red Raiders open the season predicted by Baseball America to finish sixth in the conference and by Perfect Game to finish eighth. The Big 12 coaches projections should be revealed sometime this coming week ... Tadlock will be one of three new coaches in the Big 12 this season, joining Josh Holliday at Oklahoma State and Randy Mazey, a former TCU assistant, at West Virginia.
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