Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series analyzing the turnaround of the Texas Tech baseball program in the second year under head coach Tim Tadlock. Monday’s second part will look at how it affects Tech both financially and in recruiting.
Getting Texas Tech head baseball coach Tim Tadlock to look down the road or examine the big picture is kind of like getting a turtle to pick up the pace. It’s not going to happen.
Why should it? His team has taken hold of his constant message of winning the day, getting better that day, whether it’s a game or a practice, and playing the game the right way, and it’s worked so far. In fact, it’s worked much better than most outside the Red Raider program expected.
At 37-13 overall and 11-10 in the Big 12, Tadlock has already established the watermark for the biggest single-season turnaround in league history by a Big 12 coach from year one to year two. Tech’s 37 wins are already 11 more than all of last season with three regular-season games, at least two Big 12 tournament contests and likely a couple of games in an NCAA regional still remaining.
“I thought we would be a consistent team,” Tadlock said as the Red Raiders began final exams this week. “Looking back through, the season could be a lot better but it could be a lot worse. It’s always that way. We’ve taken some games we needed to take, but also you can look back and go, ‘Man, if we’d have gotten that one, or gotten that one, think where we’d be now?’ Fortunately we’re in a pretty good spot.”
Making the leap
Tech is in that spot with many of the same players who struggled for the majority of the 2014 season. But most of those players were freshmen and sophomores who now are taking solid efforts from the summer and fall and finding the same level of success in the spring. Combined with the contributions of key freshmen and newcomers, it’s made a world of difference.
The games where Tech needed to get a key hit, or make a key pitch that eluded it in 2013 have been much more infrequent in 2014. The Red Raiders are finding a way to get the clutch hit, for the most part, and have a wealth of talented arms who have been successful in almost every situation this season.
In all three phases of the game, the Red Raiders are improved in almost every statistical category, whether it’s hitting, pitching or fielding. The only area Tech has not improved is in stolen bases, but with the makeup of the team, Tadlock knew the Red Raiders weren’t going to be swiping many bags anyway.
The Red Raiders ranked second in the Big 12 through Tuesday’s games in hitting with a .292 team batting average, which is 38 points higher than this time last season. Tech’s ERA of 3.37 is 1.37 runs lower than 2013, and the fielding percentage of .981 ranks fourth in the nation, as does its 56 double plays turned.
“We liked our team last year,” Tadlock said. “The ball just didn’t bounce our way and we weren’t as deep on the mound as we needed to be. But I liked our team’s competitiveness and spirit, all those things.
“We’re trying to get better every day. I would say that we don’t ever plan on not playing in the postseason, that’s for sure. There are pieces in there that, anytime we line up or you put it on paper, we feel we can win if we play good baseball.”
Several players have improved dramatically since last season. Sophomore first baseman Eric Gutierrez (.251 avg. in 2013) leads Tech in batting average (.325) and leads the Big 12 in home runs (12), RBIs (54), total bases (114) and slugging percentage (.588).
Junior shortstop Tim Proudfoot, despite missing a month with a shoulder injury, has increased his average by almost 100 points (.216 in 2013 to .314 in 214). Sophomore outfielder Tyler Neslony played in just 20 games last year, hitting .227, and this year is hitting .396 with four home runs and 28 RBIs despite also missing about a month with a broken bone in his hand.
Then there’s the newcomers. Senior transfer Adam Kirsch is second behind Gutierrez in home runs (7) and RBIs (43) while hitting .297 and ranking in the top 10 in the nation in doubles with 19. Freshman Stephen Smith, the former Frenship standout, has solidified the leadoff position over the second half of Big 12 play, hitting .313 with 11 doubles and his first home run of the season on Tuesday at Dallas Baptist.
As good as those numbers are offensively, it may be on the mound where Tech has improved the most, and done so without a consistent weekend starting rotation.
Last year at this time, Tech had a dismal 4.74 ERA and only a few pitchers who had winning or .500 records. As of Tuesday, the Red Raiders have just two pitchers who have sub-.500 records, Dominic Moreno (4-5, 2.78 ERA) and Ryan Moseley (1-2, 3.86), with two of Moreno’s wins coming in relief in the last three weeks.
While most teams would not have the level of success Tech had has with a starting rotation in flux, Tech has thrived thanks to its depth. Key relievers Jonny Drozd, Corey Taylor and Cameron Smith are a combined 16-3 with a 2.36 ERA. Junior left-hander Chris Sadberry (4-2, 3.34) has been the one constant in the rotation all year, and freshman left-hander Dylan Dusek (5-0, 2.63) has been a huge factor in Tech’s 12-3 record in midweek games.
“Some may think of it as unsettled, but I’d rather describe it as a willingness to try to get better and try some different things,” Tadlock said of the weekend rotation. “We have the big picture in mind about what we need to do to continue to play deep into the season. It’s pretty easy to name three starters if you want to, anybody could. We definitely have some depth on the mound, there’s no doubt about it.”
Resiliency and focus
More than the physical aspect of the game that has made a difference this season is that the mental part, to Tadlock, sets the team apart. It’s probably why it took 52 games into the season to have a three-game losing streak.
“They’ve been good about not letting good or bad results carry over to the next day,” Tadlock said.
Tadlock said the overall success of the season has not been surprising to him. Surprises to him come in the form of freshman Anthony Lyons getting five hits in Tuesday’s 18-3 victory over Dallas Baptist, or senior Devon Conley racking up eight hits in three games in the sweep of Oklahoma, or watching freshman Ryan Long hold down the shortstop position while Proudfoot was recovering from his shoulder injury and the Red Raiders continuing to be successful.
“All year we’ve had guys who have done a good job when they’ve gotten their opportunities,” Tadlock said.
Perhaps that, as much as anything, has been the key to the Red Raiders success, the fact that they haven’t had to lean on one or two players all season. Tadlock’s true team approach has put life back into the Tech baseball program, and it could only be the beginning.
“I was cautiously optimistic that we would experience the success that we’ve seen over the last number of months,” Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt said. “Knowing the type of leader Tim Tadlock is and knowing the caliber of program that he is building and is going to continue to build at Texas Tech, we’re seeing the initial results of that and we’re excited more than ever about the future of our program.”
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