Off The Bat: Texas Tech, Michigan Stay Red Hot With Sweeps
Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated Top 25, click here.
Texas Tech Stays Red Hot On The Road
Nearly three weeks ago, Texas Tech returned from a road trip through West Virginia and Duke. The Red Raiders had lost three of four games on the trip and were scuffling a bit, having gone 5-6 in their last 11 games.
Texas Tech then lost its Thursday night opener against Baylor, 11-10 in 11 innings, but since then has gone from scuffling to red hot. Texas Tech rebounded to win that series against Baylor and then swept Oklahoma State last weekend. This weekend, it went back on the road for the first time since the middle of April, facing a tricky trip to Oklahoma, which is projected to make the NCAA Tournament.
The Red Raiders passed their latest test with flying colors, sweeping the Sooners in Norman. They were trailing after the sixth inning in both the first two games and completed the sweep with an 8-4 victory on Sunday. The sweep pushed Texas Tech (33-14, 14-7) to No. 9 in both the Top 25 and the RPI, increasing its likelihood of garnering a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament.
While to the outside it looks like Texas Tech flipped a switch upon its return to Lubbock three weeks ago, coach Tim Tadlock said reality isn’t that simple. He had seen signs during the trip to West Virginia and Duke that his team was putting it all together, especially in run prevention.
“We’ve been pitching and playing defense at a pretty high level,” he said. “We started doing that really on that trip. Started doing it right in there. You could see it coming.”
It was around that time that All-American Josh Jung moved from third base to shortstop. It was a move Texas Tech had been considering for some time, but Jung pulled his quad just before the start of Big 12 play in March. He wasn’t sidelined long, but his range was hampered at third base and wasn’t good enough to try at shortstop.
But Jung is now healthy and playing solidly at shortstop. Tadlock said it was a move Jung wanted to make to help the team.
“He could see what we could see—that it would make us better,” Tadlock said. “It was just a matter of him getting healthy and giving some guys an opportunity.”
Jung, a likely top-15 pick next month, is still hitting at a high level as well. He is batting .359/.491/.641 with nine home runs, 44 walks and 31 strikeouts. With outfielders Gabe Holt (.328/.417/.434, 25 SB) and Dylan Neuse (.316/.445/.563, 8 HR, 16 SB) getting on base at the top of the lineup and second baseman Brian Klein (.343/.447/.459), Jung and first baseman Cameron Warren (.343/.443/.663, 13 HR) holding down the heart of the order, the Red Raiders have another potent offense.
Warren, a senior, put together another big week, going 10-for-18 with three home runs and three doubles in five games. He homered twice in Friday’s comeback and drove in four runs in the game. He is the latest in an impressive line of slugging first basemen in Lubbock, including Eric Gutierrez and Hunter Hargrove, who won Big 12 player of the year awards in back-to-back years in 2016-17.
Warren will face serious competition from Jung for that award, as well as Baylor third baseman Davis Wendzel, but regardless of the outcome of the voting, he’s made a big impact on the Red Raiders.
“He had a couple really big swings Friday night,” Tadlock said. “He’s playing first base at a pretty high level and providing run production, which is what you want over there. The guy’s been around the league a little bit and it shows.”
Texas Tech has been trying to figure out how to align its pitching staff all season long, but it may have hit on something over the last two weeks against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Freshman righthander Micah Dallas (4-0, 4.21) wasn’t at his best Friday night, but he’s been steady since moving into the rotation. Junior righthander Caleb Killian (7-2, 4.18) has been a constant and sophomore righthander Bryce Bonnin (4-1, 4.78) has been good the last two weeks, especially Sunday when he threw six scoreless innings against Oklahoma.
The Red Raiders have a deep bullpen to call on, including closer Clayton Beeter (0-2, 3.45, 7 SV), and the duo of righthander Taylor Floyd (4-3, 2.37) and lefthander Dane Haveman (2-1, 2.21), who are both capable of multi-inning appearances.
In short, it’s not that different from what we have come to expect from Texas Tech under Tadlock. There’s a powerful offense, a solid defense and a deep, versatile pitching staff with some powerful arms. That formula has led Texas Tech to the College World Series in three of the last five years and this year’s team is starting to look like its on a similar path.
But before then, Texas Tech would like to make a run at the Big 12 title. It is just a half game behind Baylor, thanks in part to the Bears’ series finale against Texas getting rained out. Both teams are off this weekend for finals, setting up what should be an exciting final weekend. Texas Tech hosts Texas Christian, which is fighting for its postseason life, while Baylor must travel to Oklahoma State.
Tadlock said the Red Raiders are enjoying the title race but won’t be consumed by it over the next two weeks.
“I think our group looks at it, absolutely,” he said. “You try to compartmentalize it. Once your feet hit the ground in the morning, you’ve got to get ready. It’s a fun thing.”
Michigan’s Streak Goes To 11
Michigan came into the season as the Big Ten favorite, eager to build on its strong second half of the 2018 season and the large group of returning players from that team. The Wolverines were also targeting the Big Ten title, which they haven’t won since claiming three straight from 2006-08.
There have been ups and downs this season, but after this weekend sweeping Maryland on the road, Michigan has a solid hold on first place in the Big Ten and is once again hot in the second half of the season. The Wolverines (34-11, 14-3) have won 11 straight games, matching Vanderbilt for the longest active winning streak in the nation, and that streak has helped push their lead in the Big Ten to 2.5 games ahead of second-place Indiana. It has also pushed Michigan back into the Top 25, at No. 23.
Michigan’s winning streak began April 13, with the series finale at Ohio State in the second game of a doubleheader. It had lost the first two games of the rivalry, a series which means a lot to both the Wolverines and the Buckeyes.
Coach Erik Bakich said his team took the loss personally.
“That was a series that we had circled on the schedule since our very first meeting of the year,” Bakich said. “It was a little bit of motivation. Any time you have adversity or a setback in a season, you use it as growth experience.”
The Wolverines won the finale, 6-2, and haven’t looked back. Their pitching staff has been especially good during the streak, holding opponents to a total of 28 runs. That starts with their rotation of lefthander Tommy Henry (8-3, 2.75) and righthanders Karl Kauffmann (8-3, 2.30) and Jeff Criswell (5-1, 2.40).
Henry and Kauffman were returning starters, while Criswell, a sophomore, moved to the rotation this year. He has been the best of the trio in Big Ten play, going 4-0, 0.57 in five starts and providing a steady hand at the end of the weekend.
“When you have guys that are really good on the front end, they see the blueprint and try to keep pace with each other, if not outdo each other,” Bakich said. “They’re all Michigan kids, and they have a lot of pride for the school and being a part of a great Michigan team.”
Bakich and his staff, led by recruiting coordinator Nick Schnable, have recruited at a high level since arriving in Ann Arbor seven years ago. They landed a top-10 class in 2017, the highest-ranked recruiting class in Big Ten history, in part by looking for talent from coast to coast. But they have done a great job in their home state as well, as this year’s team illustrates.
In addition to all three starters being from Michigan, outfielders Jordan Brewer (.368/.434/.671, 11 HR, 16 SB) and Jordan Nwogu (.351/.479/.604, 12 SB), the Wolverines’ two leading hitters, are also Michigan natives.
Brewer, a junior college transfer, needless to say, has been a tremendous addition to the Wolverines’ lineup. The righthanded hitter has standout physical tools and has proven he can handle center field, traits that will serve him well next month in the draft. But his impact goes beyond the field.
Bakich said Brewer introduced Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine program, which celebrates people with special needs, to the Wolverines and the team was able to take part in an event before the season.
“He’s one of those guys always looking to inject positive energy into other people,” Bakich said. “He’s made a huge impact on the field and off the field as well.”
The Wolverines have enviable depth and experience. They typically only play two freshman—closer Willie Weiss (2-2, 2.73, 9 SV) and righthander Isaiah Paige (2-0, 2.67), who redshirted last year. That’s in contrast to last year, when that recruiting class had to take on big roles immediately. There were growing pains, but Michigan is now seeing the benefit of them, as their sophomores have been up to the task this season.
Now, with two weekends left in the regular season, the Wolverines just have to close the deal. They can do it this weekend at home against Indiana, but a rainout that cost them a game against Michigan State at the end of March means that they would have to sweep the Hoosiers. Michigan finishes the season with a series at Nebraska, which is currently tied for third place.
Michigan has been down this path before under Bakich, fighting for a Big Ten title in the final few weeks of the season. It hasn’t yet had the ending the Wolverines are looking for, but this year could well be different. Bakich has tried to learn from those previous shortcomings and has restructured the Wolverines’ routines the final few weeks now that school is over in Ann Arbor in an effort to keep the players in familiar sleep and nutritional patterns.
But, at the end of the day, it will come down to execution. And that’s where this team’s experience should come in handy. Michigan has 14 upperclassmen on the roster, and even the 10 sophomores on the team have plenty of college baseball games under their belts by now. They understand the importance of staying focused and playing their best baseball down the stretch, as they’ve been doing for the last few weeks.
“Maybe in the past, we got caught up scoreboard watching or figuring out who needs to beat who,” Bakich said. “I don’t sense this team is doing that. They’re very mature and focused on understanding the most important thing is continuing to get better, executing and playing well.”
2021 Big 12 Baseball Stock Watch
After yet another thrilling finish in the Big 12 last season, we take stock of where things stand in the conference in the aftermath of the 2021 season.
Eight for Omaha
Arkansas, Georgia, Louisville, Mississippi State, Stanford, Texas Tech, UCLA, Vanderbilt
A week after mentioning Texas Tech as a team to watch, the Red Raiders move back into the field for the first time in a couple months. After their sweep at Oklahoma, I think it’s fair to say they’ve found their form here in the second half of the season. It’s taken Texas Tech some time to get to that place, but Tim Tadlock has found the right combination for this team. Moving out is Oregon State, which is going through a rough patch the last couple of weeks, a fact that was hammered home with four home losses this week. The Beavers could well turn it around, and their pitching staff remains one of the best in the country, but, in case anyone needed another reminder, this is not the team from the last two seasons.
Five players or programs who put together big weekends
Drew Bianco, INF, Louisiana State: Bianco on Friday had a moment to remember when he belted a pinch-hit home run in LSU’s 8-3 victory against Mississippi, which is coached by his father Mike Bianco. The home run also served as Drew’s birthday present to his father, who on Friday turned 52. Mike had the last laugh, however, as Drew went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in Saturday’s loss and didn’t appear Sunday, as Ole Miss came back to win the series.
Florida Atlantic: Going into their series at Southern Mississippi, FAU needed a big weekend to stay in the Conference USA title race and to boost its NCAA Tournament resume. The Owls (32-15, 17-7) did just that, clinching a series win on Saturday with an emphatic 18-9 victory. Southern Miss (31-15, 18-6) staved off a sweep Sunday to remain in first place, but FAU ensured this race will go down to the wire and may have played its way into regionals.
Ole Miss: The Rebels’ comeback series win at LSU had plenty of more meaning than simple bragging rights in the Bianco household. Ole Miss’ wild, 19-15 victory in 10 innings Sunday gave it its first series win in Baton Rouge since 1982 and handed LSU its first home series loss since opening weekend last year. Ole Miss (32-17, 15-9) also made a big move in the hosting race.
Oklahoma State: In a matchup of the black-and-orange OSUs (the scarlet-and-gray version was not invited), Oklahoma State (28-16) made a big statement with a sweep of Oregon State in Corvallis. The Beavers had not been swept in Goss Stadium since 2010, but the Cowboys did just that. Righthander Jensen Elliott and Peyton Battenfield set the tone Friday night as they combined for a two-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory and the Cowboys never looked back.
Luis Trevino, C, Abilene Christian: Trevino homered four times Friday in a doubleheader against New Orleans, including three times in ACU’s 7-3 victory. The redshirt senior went 6-for-8 and also doubled on the day. In Sunday’s series finale, he went 1-for-3 and was walked four times. On the season, Trevino is currently leading all three Triple Crown categories in the Southland Conference, hitting .422 with 15 home runs and 60 RBIs.
Three weekend rivalry series we’re most excited for
(3) Stanford at California: It’s been a few years since this series was as meaningful as it is this weekend. The Bay Area rivals haven’t both made the NCAA Tournament in the same year since 2011, but right now both Stanford (34-8, 17-4) and Cal (27-15, 13-8) project to do so. The Cardinal are tied with Oregon State for first place in the Pac-12, and in addition to trying to keep pace with atop the conference, it needs the RPI boost that this series would provide to help its hosting and top-eight seed chances. Cal is looking to shore up its resume as it enters a difficult final three weeks of the season.
(5) Mississippi State at (11) Ole Miss: Following Mississippi State’s series win at Texas A&M and Ole Miss’ at LSU, the Magnolia State rivals are tied for second place in the SEC West at 15-9. At stake this weekend—beyond the not insignificant bragging rights—is the inside track to a top-eight overall seed. The Rebels (32-17) are also looking for revenge after the Bulldogs (38-10) beat them in the Governor’s Cup in Pearl, Miss., last month.
(22) Oklahoma State vs./at Oklahoma: Bedlam got kicked up a notch this weekend when Oklahoma State (28-16, 10-8) swept Oregon State and inserted itself into the hosting race, and Oklahoma (30-18, 8-10) got swept by Texas Tech. The Sooners are looking to work their way back to a winning conference record to help their NCAA Tournament resume and also get some revenge for their 6-5 loss in Stillwater earlier this season. The Cowboys are looking to sustain success, something they’ve struggled with this season. The series begins Friday in Tulsa, moves Saturday to Oklahoma City and finishes in Norman.
Two weekend series to watch
Indiana State at Dallas Baptist: For the second straight weekend, Indiana State (34-11, 11-4) will go on the road with first place in the Missouri Valley Conference on the line. It just won a series at Illinois State to claim sole possession of first place and now travels to third-place Dallas Baptist (32-15, 9-6). The Sycamores and Patriots both rank in the top 35 of RPI, meaning they’re looking good for NCAA Tournament bids, but winning the regular-season title would be a nice boost.
Sam Houston State at Southeastern Louisiana: Sam Houston State (26-19) and Southeastern Louisiana (27-21) come into the weekend tied for first place in the Southland Conference at 16-8. Neither has an RPI good enough for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, and they’re unlikely to be able to change that this month. But this weekend’s winner will be in pole position for a conference title and the top seed in the Southland Tournament, meaning there will be plenty on the line in Hammond, La.
One midweek game to keep an eye on
(2) Vanderbilt at (6) Louisville, Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET: It’s time for the Battle of the Barrel, which became an annual game in 2012. Louisville (39-9) has won three straight and leads the series 4-3, but Vanderbilt (38-9) brings plenty of momentum into Tuesday’s showdown. The Commodores are tied with Michigan for the longest active winning streak in the country at 11 games and have won nine straight midweek games. This game has the potential to be an Omaha preview and should produce a fun Tuesday night show.