Off The Bat: Texas Tech, Arkansas Collect Key Series Wins
Texas Tech Powers To Key Series Win
Two of the top teams in the Big 12 this weekend converged on Lubbock, as Texas Tech hosted Texas Christian. Texas Tech, the preseason favorite, entered the weekend just .500 in conference play after last weekend getting upset at Kansas State. TCU came to town as the conference leader, having swept its first two Big 12 series.
TCU won the series opener, 7-3, running its winning streak to 11 games. The Frogs took an early lead Saturday as well, going up 4-1 in the top of the fourth. From there, however, the series flipped. Texas Tech scored four in the bottom of the inning and never trailed again the rest of the series. The Red Raiders won, 6-5, in 10 innings on a walk-off home run from Cal Conley. In Sunday’s rubber game, Texas Tech routed TCU, 17-7, in a game shortened to seven innings by run rule.
The series result was big for both teams and the Big 12 race as a whole. But even considering the form of the teams coming into the weekend, it was not unexpected. Texas Tech has not lost a home series since 2018, one of the most remarkable runs in the sport.
While Texas Tech already has series wins against Oklahoma State and now TCU, two of the leading contenders in the Big 12, coach Tim Tadlock said it’s still too early to really assess what that will mean for the big picture goals of a Big 12 title and hosting regionals.
“In the big picture, there are all kinds of things you can talk about,” Tadlock said. “RPI, hosting—but it’s way too early to really go there. But that is what the big picture is. You win series, you put yourself in position to win the league.
“The simple answer is it’s better to win two out of three than lose two out of three. That’s the simple answer. There’s long-term things that it’s going to help you.”
The Red Raiders navigated the weekend without outfielders Dru Baker and Dylan Neuse, two of their best players, in the lineup. Baker picked up a strained leg last weekend at K-State and didn’t play against TCU, while Neuse was limited to just a late appearance Sunday when Kurt Wilson jammed his hand sliding and had to come out of the game. Baker is the team’s leading hitter at .427/.500/.563 with 11 stolen bases. Neuse anchors center field and is hitting .281/.440/.427 with 11 stolen bases.
Even without those two hitters, Texas Tech still piled up 26 runs on the weekend, thanks in no small part to second baseman Jace Jung. He went 7-for-13 on the weekend and homered three times Sunday—the second time in six games that he has done so. His 15 home runs on the season are tied with South Carolina slugger Wes Clarke for the most in the nation.
Jung is the younger brother of Josh Jung, a former All-American at Texas Tech now playing in the Rangers’ system. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, but Jace is now making his own mark in his second season in Lubbock, as he’s hitting .405/.504/.865.
The Red Raiders are certainly happy to have him in the lineup, especially when he’s as locked in as he was against TCU. After a comparatively quiet weekend at K-State—after homering three times in a series opening win, he went 2-for-7 in two losses—Jung said he got back to a better approach at the plate.
“Last week, I got away from the plan and didn’t help the team as much as I did this week,” he said. “I got back to plan of aggressive attack at the plate, getting the first pitch, trying to do damage and not taking any pitches off.”
Texas Tech absolutely looked the part of Big 12 title contender, maybe even favorite, this weekend. But the Red Raiders need to get healthy. In addition to Baker and Neuse, righthander Brandon Birdsell is banged up. Tech pushed his start against TCU back from Friday to Sunday in an effort to get him a few extra days of rest, but he still exited his start early due to shoulder discomfort for the second week in a row.
Getting that trio right would be significant for the Red Raiders. They also will need to improve away from Lubbock. At home this season, they are 18-2. Away from Rip Griffin Park, they are 4-5. With a trip this weekend to West Virginia (12-14, 4-5) and a showdown in Austin against Texas (25-8, 10-2) looming in three weeks, finding a solution will be critical to their Big 12 hopes.
For now, however, Texas Tech can feel good about the way it played this weekend and where it stands at the season’s midway point.
Big 12 Title Race Reshaped
Texas Tech’s series win also had the effect of reshaping the conference title race. Had TCU been able to secure a rare series win in Lubbock, it might have emerged as the conference favorite. Instead, the top four teams in the standings—Texas, TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech—are separated by just two games in the loss column.
The Longhorns lead the conference at 10-2 and are enjoying an eight-game winning streak that includes sweeps of Kansas and K-State. While they’ve made hay early, they also have yet to play any of the leading contenders. That changes in two weeks when Texas begins a three-week stretch of at Oklahoma State, home against Texas Tech and at TCU.
Having taken a tough series loss, TCU must quickly regroup. It goes into a crucial series this weekend against Oklahoma State at 7-2. The Horned Frogs need a series win in the friendly confines of Lupton Stadium.
Oklahoma State this weekend stepped out of conference play to sweep UNC Wilmington. It now faces a critical stretch that sees it travel to TCU, face Texas at home and then play archrival Oklahoma in the annual Bedlam Series. The Cowboys are 6-3 and have already lost a series at Texas Tech.
Texas Tech stands at 5-4, but owns series wins against two of the other contenders. Finding a solution to its woes away from Lubbock is critical, especially with a series in Austin still to be played.
While the Big 12 champion is likely to be one of those four teams, West Virginia will play a big role in deciding the title. The Mountaineers (12-14, 4-5) get Texas Tech and TCU at home and it is never an easy trip from Texas to Morgantown. WVU then finishes the regular season at Texas, when the Longhorns could be trying to clinch their second Big 12 title in three conference seasons.
Arkansas Does It Again
Arkansas is the best team in the country and has the best resume in the sport. That’s long been true and is why the Razorbacks have now been No. 1 in the Top 25 for seven straight weeks.
But for anyone that was still skeptical, Arkansas proved it once again this weekend with a series win at Mississippi, which was ranked No. 3 in the Top 25. The Razorbacks (26-5, 9-3) rallied in the series opener for a 7-3 victory after getting no-hit for five innings by Preseason All-American Gunnar Hoglund. They lost the nightcap, 13-6, in a game that was closer than the final score, but then clinched the series with a wild, 18-14 victory Sunday.
The finale didn’t follow any sort of normal script, as Arkansas raced out to an 11-0 lead in the third inning before Ole Miss rallied to tie the game at 14 in the seventh. But the Razorbacks’ offense wasn’t done, and it scored four unanswered runs to close out the series.
“(Monday) when we wake up, we’ll think about this a little bit and how we hung in there and found a way to win two out of three down here,” coach Dave Van Horn said. “We’ve played Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama, we’ve played a lot of games in our division and we’ve done pretty well.”
Arkansas’ impressive performance this season hasn’t come against light competition, either. It has played 12 games against teams currently ranked in the top 16—all away from Baum-Walker Stadium—and is 10-2 in those games. No team has more wins against current Top 25 teams.
Arkansas has opened SEC play with four straight series wins against division foes. It leads the SEC West and its 9-3 conference mark is tied for best in the SEC With Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
I’ve written a lot about Arkansas already this season—breaking down what makes it successful, its penchant for comebacks, how dynamic its lineup is and how deep its pitching staff is. I plan to write more soon. But after another impressive weekend against another high-quality opponent, it’s worth simply appreciating its impressive run to this point.
2021 USA Baseball College National Team Top MLB Draft Prospects
After a return to the field in 2021, the USA Baseball College National Team once again provided a good look at the next elite crop of prospects for the MLB draft.
Eight for Omaha
Arizona, Arkansas, Louisville, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Texas, Vanderbilt
Just one change to the field this week with Tennessee entering and Mississippi dropping out. Taking out Ole Miss has less to do with it losing a home series to Arkansas—that’ll happen—and more with it losing veteran slugger Tim Elko to injury. Now, the Rebels’ offense did fine without him this week—it scored 30 runs against Arkansas—and Elko hasn’t even been ruled out for the season. But Ole Miss has lost three series—the most of any of the prominent College World Series contenders—and now it’s missing its biggest power threat. I’m not writing the Rebels off, but I’m going to take a bit of a wait-and-see approach with them this week.
Tennessee, meanwhile, has been business-like all season long. The Volunteers lead the nation with 27 wins and have yet to have a bad weekend. Their lone hiccup came in week 2, when they split a four-game series against Indiana State, a team that is now ranked in the Top 25. Tennessee isn’t the most star-studded team in the mix, but it has impressive depth and coach Tony Vitello gets the most out of it. I don’t know how early I’m getting to the bandwagon, but if Tennessee wins a series this weekend against Vanderbilt, I expect seats will fill up fast.
McCade Brown and Braydon Tucker, Indiana: Brown and Tucker on Saturday combined for a no-hitter in an 8-0 victory against Illinois. Brown threw the first five innings, striking out nine batters and walking seven. Tucker threw the next four, striking out one and walking one. It was the Hoosiers’ first no-hitter since 1984.
Georgia: The Bulldogs (20-11, 5-7) became the first team this season to win a series against Vanderbilt and on Thursday the first team to beat Kumar Rocker since UCLA on March 6, 2020. Georgia clinched the series win with a 9-1 victory against the second-ranked Commodores in Saturday’s rubber game, earning its highest-ranked series win this century. Georgia had lost its first three SEC series, while Vanderbilt came into the weekend on a nine-game winning streak.
Brandon Lankford, 3B, UNC Asheville: With two home runs against Winthrop on the weekend, Lankford became Asheville’s all-time home run leader. He homered Saturday to tie Brian Shehan’s program record that had stood since 1990 and on Sunday homered again, his 43rd career home run, to break the record. Lankford went 6-for-14 on the weekend and this season is hitting .364/.475/.636 with eight home runs.
Ivan Melendez, DH, Texas: Melendez homered in all five of Texas’ games last week, helping it to extend its winning streak to eight games. The third-year sophomore went 10-for-18 on the week and has homered in six straight games, dating back to the series finale against Kansas. He is hitting .375/.451/.739 with eight home runs this season.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers swept Miami to improve to 17-10 on the season and 12-9 in the ACC. With Sunday’s 12-5 victory, Pitt both set a program record for most ACC wins in a season and became just the second team in conference history to sweep both Florida State and Miami.
No. 9 Mississippi and No. 3 Mississippi State set for a Magnolia State showdown. The Rebels (24-8, 8-4) and the Bulldogs (24-7) will meet in Starkville in this year’s edition of the best rivalry in college baseball. Ole Miss is in the midst of a brutal stretch of schedule and has lost back-to-back series at Florida and against Arkansas. Mississippi State has won seven straight games, including sweeps of Kentucky and Auburn, since it was swept by Arkansas.
No. 6 Vanderbilt travels to No. 5 Tennessee for the biggest meeting in the rivalry’s history. The Commodores (25-5, 9-3) and Volunteers (27-6, 9-3) are tied atop the SEC East standings and for the first time ever they will square off as top-10 teams in a series that will weigh heavily on the races for the SEC title and top-eight national seeds. Tennessee leads the nation in wins and has not lost a series this season. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is coming off its first series loss of the season after it was upset at home by Georgia. Tennessee is seeking its first series win against Vanderbilt since 2016.
Southern Mississippi looks for revenge at No. 16 Louisiana Tech. Three weeks ago, on opening weekend for Conference USA, Louisiana Tech went to Hattiesburg and won a four-game series against Southern Miss. Now, the two best teams in the West Division will meet again, this time in Ruston. For LaTech (24-7, 10-2), this is a chance to cement itself as the best team in the conference and make a statement in the hosting race. For Southern Miss (21-9, 8-3), this is a chance for revenge, to reassert itself in the division race and to get into the hosting mix. In short, there’s a lot on the line at the Love Shack.