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Raider Power Keeps Texas Tech Alive In Omaha

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Texas Tech shortstop Josh Jung (Photo by John Williamson)

OMAHA — With a 5-4 win against Arkansas in an elimination game at the College World Series on Monday, Texas Tech reversed a couple of trends.

Under Tim Tadlock, the Red Raiders are known for putting up runs in bunches, and in particular, they always seem to have a hitter or two capable of hitting the ball out of the ballpark, even in a cavernous setting like TD Ameritrade Park.

But once they’ve gotten to this stage in previous seasons, that part of their game has gone silent. Coming into Monday, in nine games at the CWS, Texas Tech hitters had two total home runs and one came Saturday, a two-run shot from second baseman Brian Klein in a 5-3 loss to Michigan. The other was hit in 2014 by Eric Gutierrez, who is now an assistant coach at his alma mater.

On Monday, with their backs against the wall, the Red Raiders hit three home runs, the first of which came at a moment when they really needed it.

Down 3-0 in the fourth, with the Arkansas offense having scored in each of the previous two innings off of righthander Caleb Kilian and Razorbacks righthander Connor Noland looking comfortable, Texas Tech first baseman Cameron Warren launched a ball deep into the left field bleachers. It woke up the Texas Tech fans in attendance, and crucially, the Texas Tech bats.

It also gave a lift to Kilian, who, at the time, was just fighting to stay out there as Arkansas hitters barreled him up.

“That was huge,” Kilian said. “That gave me a ton of confidence. Man, that was awesome because I was kind of just grinding it out out there, hoping for some run support, and then Cam comes through with that.”

The second home run was the most improbable.

A year ago, third baseman Easton Murrell was actually on the Arkansas roster, but by the time the Razorbacks reached Omaha, he wasn’t a factor.

Fast-forward to Monday and not only was Murrell in the Texas Tech lineup at third base, but he was hitting leadoff, a spot vacated by outfielder Gabe Holt, who missed his third consecutive game with a thumb injury.

Murrell’s playing time has increased since the Big 12 Tournament began, and Tadlock has lauded the quality of his at-bats during that span. Still, this was quite an opportunity for a player with just 44 plate appearances coming into the day and it was a pure hunch play by Tadlock. Murrell’s experience as a Razorback, as it turns out, played into the decision.

“Really just felt like the lefthanded bat was the right thing to stick in there,” Tadlock said. “And then the advantage he has by he’s seen everybody out of their bullpen, the older guys. He’s seen them a number of times. So a little bit of both went into it.”

And beyond that, Murrell didn’t have any home runs coming into the day. But he stepped up to the plate in the fifth, took a hack at a 3-1 offering and deposited the ball beyond the right field wall, tying the game, 3-3.

In the sixth inning, Josh Jung connected for one of his classic opposite-field homers, giving Texas Tech its first lead of the day at 4-3, completing the comeback from that early deficit.

But this power display would have all been for naught had it not been for the effort of Kilian.

After falling behind 3-0 after three innings, he settled in, giving the offense time to go to work. By the time he exited, he had thrown seven innings, allowing six hits and three runs with one walk and nine strikeouts, many of them on a sharp slider that seemed to get better as the game wore on.

“I think (the slider) improved throughout the game,” Kilian said. “I don’t think it was that great at the beginning. But I felt like I had good command with all my pitches for the most part, and I think that’s what really helped me out.”

The Red Raiders very nearly had a fourth home run on a deep fly ball off the bat of DH Cody Masters. With Warren on at first base and two outs in the eighth in what was once again a tied ballgame at 4-4, Masters gave one a ride to deep right-center field.

It fell a bit short, but it still ended up as the biggest hit of the night, a double that brought Warren, who had been running on the pitch, home.

It was a huge hit for a player who hadn’t looked comfortable all game long. To that point, Masters had been retired on a comebacker to the mound, a popup to short and a swinging strikeout.

“Prior to that, didn’t have many good at-bats before that,” Masters said. “So whenever I was stepping on deck, just kind of took a deep breath, tried to forget everything and tried to come through for the squad that’s always come through for me when it mattered.”

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The other trend Texas Tech is working against is the overall record in this event.

For all of the success the Red Raiders have had in getting to Omaha in four of the last six seasons, they haven’t won all that many games here. In its previous nine games at the CWS, Texas Tech was 2-7, including its loss Saturday to Michigan.

Now at 3-7, there is still work to be done to fully reverse that trend. After all, this is the third trip in a row in which Tech has won one game here after going 1-2 in each of the last two appearances.

But 3-7 and still alive in 2019 beats being 2-8 and headed home early again, and had the Red Raiders’ bats failed to perform as had happened in previous years, that would have been the reality of the situation.

Instead, a historic power performance unlike anything they’ve mustered before in Omaha kept them alive.

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