Pitching and defense win championships.
Hard to argue with that phrase. Seen it play out as the truth way too many times in college baseball to completely discount it. Coaches preach it. Players preach it. Both believe it. UCLA won a national championship with it last year.
But it comes with a caveat.
At some point, you gotta score some runs, too. Either that, or play so perfectly that the other team doesn’t score, either.
That, ultimately, was the difference in the Texas Tech baseball team’s opening weekend of Big 12 Conference play at Baylor, losing two of three games despite outscoring the Bears 8-4. The Red Raiders dropped out of the Collegiate Baseball poll and just barely stayed in the USA Today coaches rankings at No. 25 and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll at No. 29
Tech pitched tremendously all weekend, played flawless defense for two of the three games against the Bears, and in the one it didn’t, the errors did not come back to haunt.
But until the eighth inning on Sunday, Tech scored exactly one run. One. In 25 innings.
If not for a dropped can of corn by Baylor freshman Lane Kelly, who was making his career debut for the Bears after normal left fielder Darryn Sheppard left with a hand injury, the Red Raiders are likely swept right out of Waco for the second time in three years.
And therein lies the biggest factor to come out of the weekend. We knew Tech’s pitching was deeper, it’s defense is better, leading the Big 12 with a .980 fielding percentage.
The Red Raiders came out of the weekend with a 1.44 ERA, allowing just four earned runs in 25 innings with four walks and 25 strikeouts. The Bears hit just .200 off six total pitchers used by Tech, three starters and three relievers. Those numbers are good enough to sweep a series, much less win one.
Only four times in its Big 12 history has a Tech team allowed four runs in a series — last season at Texas, 2001 vs. Oklahoma State and 1997 vs. Iowa State. Tech won all three of those previous series. It has never allowed fewer than four.
But the offense is showing a dangerous pattern — beat up on the average pitchers, unable to handle the good ones.
We saw it on opening day when Indiana all-American starter Joe DeNato held the Red Raiders to three hits in six innings. We saw it in Houston when Cougars starter Aaron Garza tossed 82/3 shutout innings. We saw it twice this weekend from Baylor starters Dillon Newman and Brad Kuntz.
Tech has lost five games this season. Three have been shutouts, another a 2-1 loss to the Bears.
In itself, five losses in 21 games is nothing to be alarmed about. The concern, though, is in how the offense performed in those losses, or, rather, didn’t perform.
Because it reeks of last season.
Tech’s failure to execute the first two games of the series cost it two wins and possibly a sweep. The Red Raiders hit just .136 (3 of 22) for the series with runners in scoring position, and if you take away the eighth inning on Sunday they were a dismal 1 for 20 (.050).
But even beyond that, failure by certain players to execute erased golden opportunities to break through. Twice on the weekend Tech failed to get a bunt down that would have put the tying run in scoring position. The Red Raiders also hit into a pair of rally-killing double plays, both coming with two on and no outs.
The whole game on Friday was problematic as Baylor pitchers recorded 24 of 27 outs in the game by either fly balls (16) or strikeouts (8), a sign that Dillon Newman had Tech hitters way off balance
On Sunday, Hunter Redman had a decisive three-run double in the eighth inning. But one inning prior, a failed bunt after a leadoff walk led to a rally-killing double play.
Sure, there were some great defensive plays by the Bears as well to keep Tech down. Logan Brown robbed Ryan Long of extra bases that could have led to a run, or more.
But Tech has to make its own luck, and failed to do so against a Bears staff that entered the weekend ranked next to last in the conference with an ERA above 4.
And it’s not going to get any easier. Coming up this weekend is TCU (Big 12-leaidng 2.11 ERA) and all-American Brandon Finnegan on Friday and Preston Morrison on Saturday. After that the Longhorns bring Parker French, Dillon Peters and Nathan Thornhill to town. There’s also Harrison Musgrave and John Means of West Virginia and a Kansas staff that held UT to just three earned runs this weekend.
One weekend does not a season make. We saw that on the other end of the spectrum after last season’s series win in Austin. Plus, the 1-2 record didn’t damage Tech’s RPI much, still opening the week in the top 15, and in the end, the Red Raiders accomplished the bare minimum for a Big 12 road series in not being swept.
But for a team that expects to compete for an NCAA playoff berth, series like the one in Waco have to be few and far between, not so much in results but in terms of how those results came about.
We’ll have to wait and see whether this past weekend, at least offensively, was an anomaly or the norm for 2014.