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Watson: Hot start good for Tech baseball, but now the season really begins

Why it will

Posted: March 10, 2014 - 10:12pm  |  Updated: March 11, 2014 - 12:12am
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Texas Tech's Alec Humphreys connects for a RBI double against New Mexico State during their game on Sunday in Lubbock. (Zach Long)  Zach Long/A-J Media
Zach Long/A-J Media
Texas Tech's Alec Humphreys connects for a RBI double against New Mexico State during their game on Sunday in Lubbock. (Zach Long)
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There comes a time in the evolution of every sports team, professional, college or high school, no matter the sport, where everything just starts clicking.

It’s called turning the corner. Every team that has achieved success has done it, and at the end of a journey, or in the middle of several years of sustained success, every program can point back to the time it turned that corner.

For the Texas Tech baseball teams of the mid-late 1980s and early 2000s, that corner was 1995. That’s when Tech busted through the postseason door and made the school’s first NCAA appearance while winning the old Southwest Conference with a school-record 51 games.

That season started a string of nine NCAA playoff berths in a 10-year span. But with no postseason berths past the Big 12 Tournament since 2004, that seems like a lifetime ago for some long-time Tech fans.

Could it be happening again?

The 2014 version of Red Raider baseball is off to one of the best starts since the program joined the Big 12 in 1997. The 14-3 record is bettered only by the 15-2 mark set by that 1997 team, which eventually arose to No. 1 in the nation.

The 1996 team started 16-1 through 17 games, and the 1995 squad was also 14-3. But those teams were building off the success of the previous years.

This year’s team doesn’t have that luxury, which is why the start to this season should be met with very cautious optimism.

 

Why it will

There are plenty of reasons to think this team can at least finish in the top three of the Big 12 Conference, which would almost assure a spot in the NCAA tournament in June.

Depth: Rarely has head coach Tim Tadlock used the same starting lineup two days in a row, tweaking a position here, rewarding a hot hitter there. Maybe the most impressive thing about the mixed lineups is Tech has continued to produce with Proudfoot (shoulder) and Tyler Neslony (right hand), arguably Tech’s two hottest hitters to start the year, have missed most of the season with injuries.

That has opened the door for guys like freshman Ryan Long, who has solidified the shortstop position while hitting .321 with 13 RBIs and just two errors. Or freshman outfielder Stephen Smith, who is 6 for his last 15 and started each game of the New Mexico State series with a leadoff walk. Or Alec Humphreys, who turned a pinch-hitting opportunity into a stretch where he went 6 for 10 with four RBIs in the last two games of the NMSU series.

It could be newcomers like Adam Kirsch, a senior transfer from Florida International, who is hitting .375 with a team-high 16 RBIs, or sophomore first baseman Eric Gutierrez, who this time last year was hitting just .212 but who now leads the team with a .386 average and home runs in his last two games.

Even with a different lineup every day, the Red Raiders still rank No. 2 in the Big 12 conference in fielding with a .980 average, and enter this week third with a .302 batting average.

Cohesiveness: This is the area that is most important to a team playing like a team. But it’s also the one that gets scrutinized the most from the outside.

Every season, every player in every interview talks about how close the team is. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not as true as they’d like it to be. But the fact that head coach Tim Tadlock has told his team from Day 1 that all 35 guys have to be ready seems to be having an effect.

“I like how we stay loose during games, just have fun,” Gutierrez said. “Just play the game, nothing to stress about. It’s just baseball.

“I think the team is closer, better chemistry.”

 

Why it won’t

Experience: As much as Tech brought back a good bit of its team from last season, none of them have the experience of what it takes to make it to the NCAAs.

Let’s face it, the memories of long-time Tech fans themselves are starting to fade when it comes to recalling what the NCAA playoffs were like. Even for me, I haven’t seen one since 2002 (I didn’t attend the 2004 regional at Georgia Tech).

The talk since Tadlock was hired two years ago was about getting back to the NCAAs, getting back to the glory days. But it’s been so since Tech made it past the Big 12 tournament that it’s more like starting over. The gap has been that long.

That’s why the skepticism exists. That’s why fans want to get excited but don’t have the assurance that this hot start will last, because it hasn’t in the recent past. The 2005, 2006 and 2007 teams all started with double-digit wins in their first 15 games but were a combined 26-50-1 in Big 12 play.

And even this weekend’s opening Big 12 series against Baylor might not be enough to assuage the skepticism. Remember, last year’s team won its opening weekend series at Texas and still finished eighth, only because finished last.

Tech plays three of its first four series on the road. If it’s going to challenge for a top three spot, that means coming out with no worse than a .500 record in order to make a push over the last half of the season with three of the final four series at home.

Inconsistency: There’s too much up and down from some players, which is why they’ve moved up or down in the order, or in and out of the order altogether.

But that inconsistency will hurt worse on the mound. Tech’s 3.02 ERA puts them at fourth in the Big 12 rankings, not too far behind league-leading Texas (1.99). But the Red Raiders pitching staff has not been as sharp the last two weeks as it was the first two weeks.

In its first nine games the Red Raiders gave up 19 earned runs. In the last eight, they’ve surrendered 33.

Every pitcher is going to have a bad outing. It’s baseball, it happens. And pitching coach Ray Hayward said the worst thing he can point out to a pitcher is his ERA, because it gets into his head when he’s out on the mound.

But it’s what pitchers do after a sub-par outing. There are about eight arms on the staff right now who have shown the propensity to not let one bad outing bleed into another. There are some who haven’t, and may find their innings reduced if it continues. After a good outing to start the season, Matt Withrow hasn’t made it past the fourth inning in either of his two starts, and that’s a power arm the Red Raiders absolutely have to have.

It’s that inconsistency, not knowing what you will get by running a pitcher out on the mound in a key situation, or not trusting that pitcher in that situation completely, that becomes the problem.

 

Wait and see

All this to say that we still don’t know how this will all play out.

The best thing to come out of all this, though, is that the message hasn’t changed since day one.

“More than anything, if we pitch and play defense, we’ll give ourselves a chance to be in games,” Tadlock said. “The intent the guys bring to the park every day, trying to work and trying to get better is the thing I like the most.”

In the end, it also might prove to be the difference in making or missing the NCAAs.

 

Texas Tech baseball

What: Abilene Christian at Texas Tech

When: 6:30 p.m. today

Where: Rip Griffin Park

Records: ACU 7-6, Texas Tech 14-3

Radio: KTTU 104.3 FM

Twitter: @AJJorge

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Watson...

Finally more than two paragraphs and the central theme is negativity.

This club will get a bid.

End of comment.

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