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Caleb Kilian Delivers Breakthrough Start For Texas Tech

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Texas Tech righthander Caleb Kilian (Courtesy of Texas Tech)

Righthander Caleb Kilian entered the spring with some lofty expectations and a critical role on Texas Tech’s pitching staff. He had last year as a draft-eligible sophomore turned down an opportunity to start his professional career when the Orioles drafted him in the 20th round, opting to instead return to school.

Kilian this year was Texas Tech’s Opening Day starter but struggled that day against Oregon, giving up six runs on six hits and two walks in 3.1 innings. He was pushed back a spot in the rotation with lefthander Erickson Lanning taking over on Friday nights, and Kilian pitched better over the next three weeks against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Wichita State. But he still wasn’t putting it all together and didn’t make it out of the fifth inning in any of those starts.

So, after four starts, Kilian was 0-2, 9.19 coming into the start of Big 12 Conference play and No. 9 Texas Tech’s critical series at No. 10 Texas. And when the Longhorns edged the Red Raiders, 4-3, on Friday in the series opener, more pressure fell to Kilian on Saturday to help Texas Tech even the series.

Kilian stepped up to the challenge. He threw seven scoreless innings, struck out four batters and held Texas to one hit and two walks. He outdueled righthander Blair Henley, his former travel-ball teammate, and the Red Raiders won, 3-0.

Kilian attributed his turnaround to a change in mentality.

“I talked to some coaches and they told me, ‘(It’s) a fresh start. That was spring training, we’re starting over today,’” Kilian said. “I think that helped a lot. I was more focused.”

Kilian, listed at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, threw his fastball in the low 90s on Saturday and mixed in his breaking balls and changeup effectively. Texas (14-7) didn’t get much solid contact off of him, and he produced nine groundball outs.

Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock said Kilian had good late life on his pitches Saturday.

“I really thought the ball was coming out of his hand good and he’s been coming,” Tadlock said. “Thought he had good command and good secondary stuff tonight.”

Kilian settled into the game as it went along. He retired the final 11 batters he faced and did not allow a runner past second base after the second inning.

Tadlock said Kilian’s ability to do that is one of the biggest areas of his development during his college career. Kilian worked out of the bullpen until midway through last year, when he moved into the Red Raiders’ rotation.

“He can get through the lineup a few more times,” Tadlock said. “I would say the biggest thing is he can get through the lineup with a fastball and go to the secondary stuff. Probably when he came in it was a little bit more he had to mix. First time through a guy needs to go out and establish the fastball.”

Texas Tech also got another strong outing out of freshman righthander Clayton Beeter, who struck out five batters in two scoreless innings to close out the shutout and pick up his third save. Things turned nervy in the ninth when he walked the bases loaded with two outs, but he got out of the jam unscathed.

Beeter’s emergence at the backend of the bullpen has been important for the Red Raiders so far this season. They’ve used 18 pitchers already this season, working to find the right mix, work that will likely continue for a few more weeks.

But Kilian’s breakthrough start could help settle the staff and came at an opportune time for Texas Tech (12-4) as it enters Big 12 play. The Red Raiders are still trying to sort out their pitching staff and getting the veteran they expected to lead their rotation going is an important part of that process.

Kilian also needed to get on track to help his own draft stock. He doesn’t have a plus secondary pitch, but his long, lean build and ability to locate his above-average fastball to both sides of the plate make for an intriguing package and figure to make him a top-five or six rounds pick. If he can produce the kind of outing he had Saturday at Texas consistently over the next three months, it would be a huge boost to both him and the Red Raiders.

But on Saturday, all of that was secondary to the result in what was the biggest game Texas Tech has played to date. In front of 7,879 fans, the biggest regular-season crowd in Longhorns’ program history, Kilian delivered a gem and the Red Raiders found a way to level the series and set up a rubber game Sunday.

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