Bryant Burleson’s highlight his freshman season was a soft, looping liner into shallow right-center field at Rip Griffin Park.
It wasn’t so much the hit itself, but against whom — and when — it came. It happened in the bottom of the 14th inning in the wee hours of a Friday night/Saturday morning. It came against then-No. 25 Texas with the Red Raiders down a run and facing all-American closer Corey Knebel.
The hit sent the Red Raiders to a 7-6 victory over the Longhorns and evened the series at one win apiece.
Unfortunately, it was also the highlight of the 2012 season for Texas Tech, which went on to lose its next five Big 12 games, including the series finale against the Longhorns that year. The Red Raiders won just one Big 12 series all year, missed the Big 12 Championships, and shortly after the season ended, a new coaching staff was put in place.
That season seems long ago for both Burleson and the Red Raiders, and both are much different heading into this year’s series against the 12th-ranked Longhorns (20-6, 1-2). No. 24 Texas Tech (21-7, 3-3) is right in the thick of the early Big 12 chase, leads the league in victories, has the second-best pitching staff in the conference, has been ranked for most of the season and is coming off a big road series win at TCU last weekend.
“Like every other series, they’re all big,” said Burleson, a junior hitting .282 with 16 RBIs. “They all count the same. It’s only the third series in the Big 12 and there’s still a long season ahead of us. We just have to keep playing our game.”
Similarly, the Longhorns have shaken off a sub-par 2013 in which they finished last in the Big 12 and this year have the top-ranked pitching staff in the conference.
It has the makings of a pivotal early-season showdown.
After taking two of three from UT in Austin last season, Tech will be looking for its second straight Big 12 series victory over the Longhorns. That hasn’t happened since 2001-02, and UT went on to win the national championship in 2002.
For Texas Tech, the key is not to undo the momentum and progress made from doing what is very difficult to do in the Big 12 — win a road series. After being shut out 9-0 in the opener by the Horned Frogs, the Red Raiders blasted TCU by a combined score of 22-4.
“Really, there is an emphasis on getting better here in about an hour,” head coach Tim Tadlock said before Thursday’s practice. “We’ll be excited with Friday and deal with it as it comes. Then we’ll deal with Saturday. One of the things that’s clear to these guys is it’s not possible to play three games in one day, it’s not possible to play two pitches at a time. We’re best when we deal with it one at a time and were learning that a little bit each day as we go.”
Like the Red Raiders, the Longhorns opened Big 12 play two weeks ago dropping a 2-1 series decision to Kansas. The only difference is UT did so at home, and now has to find a way to make up that difference by picking up a road series victory itself.
UT has played well as of late, winning five straight since falling to the Jayhawks and 15 of its last 18. But head coach Augie Garrido knows even for the Longhorns this weekend won’t be easy.
“Like all teams, every experience is kind of a new one for us,” Garrido said. “Coming to Lubbock will be that and we just have to keep the game fun for ourselves and work at it and get better. We’re excited about the opportunity to play in Lubbock because it will be a different environment, and all the things that we do the rest of the season is how we prepare for the postseason.”
It’s the postseason the Red Raiders are trying to reach, somewhere they haven’t been in a decade. To do that, taking care of business at home is crucial.
That means solving yet another top-flight pitching staff. Each of Texas’ three starters this weekend holds ERAs under 2.00, and four of Tech’s seven losses have come on Friday, three by shutout against some of the country’s top arms.
It’s not a trend, however, the players seem to be concerned about.
“We just have to play our game and let the results take care of themselves,” Burleson said. “We need to play each pitch and have a good approach at the plate. The pitching will be there, it’s been there all year, so we’re not worried about that. We have to play our game and everything else will take care of itself.”
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