Three Strikes: La Tech Flies High, Wright State Dominates
Louisiana Tech came into the 2021 season with a talented, experienced club, and so far this season, it has played like one.
The Bulldogs are 14-5, and just in the last two weeks have taken a game off of No. 1 Arkansas, won a midweek game against No. 4 Mississippi and swept Tulane on the road. That type of run can do a lot for a team’s belief.
“It has to give you confidence when you play Arkansas, the No. 1 team in the country, off their feet, have a chance to win the series, and then you play Ole Miss really well (when they) come in here in the midweek, and then go down to Tulane and do what we did,” Louisiana Tech coach Lane Burroughs said.
The way in which it has been winning games is impressive as well, as this is far from a one-sided outfit.
The lineup is led by longtime contributors like second baseman Taylor Young (.333/.421/.564), third baseman Hunter Wells (.325/.429/.545), right fielder Steele Netterville (.277/.412/.554) and center fielder Parker Bates (.263/.378/.447). That core, all four of whom came off of excellent 2020 seasons, has played in a combined 601 games in Louisiana Tech uniforms.
Together, they’ve helped the Bulldogs hit .287/.386/.447 as a group and put up eight runs or more nine times already this season.
On the mound, the rotation of lefthander Jonathan Fincher (3-0, 1.50), righthander Ryan Jennings (2-1, 3.33) and righthander Jarret Whorff (4-1, 2.59) isn’t quite as experienced, but all three are in their fourth season of college baseball, and that unit has been a revelation thus far in 2021.
Two weekends ago, Whorff tossed a two-hit shutout against Arkansas, while both Fincher and Jennings threw shutouts against Tulane last weekend, with Fincher allowing just two baserunners against the Green Wave.
But while La Tech is getting a lot of production from a lot of players and has taken down some brand name teams already this season, that’s not altogether a surprising development for Burroughs and his staff, who scheduled fairly aggressively knowing what they had on their hands.
“I just think this team is mature,” Burroughs said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have a lot of at-bats under their belt, a lot of guys that have pitched a lot of innings, stressful innings, stressful at-bats, played in big environments. That’s why I wanted to make the schedule tough.”
The experience of this team, however, is perhaps better expressed not in total innings pitched or total at-bats taken, but rather in everything that it has been through together.
Recall that a good portion of this team was around when a tornado tore through Ruston in April 2019. That’s a traumatic event to have to deal with in and of itself, but it also forced the team to have to deal with ongoing adversity, as damage to the team’s home ballpark required it to have to play home games at Ruston High and take batting practice at a Little League facility until the start of this season, when the rebuilt J.C. Love Field was finished.
“I don’t like to talk about that a lot, but I think we’ve created some toughness,” Burroughs said. “These guys ain’t going to blink, man, it doesn’t matter. They don’t have a locker room, they don’t have a place to hang out, they’ve had to drive 10 miles south to practice, and we have to work around the high school team, we have to work around Little League teams, and we did it.”
It’s also a team that has come tantalizingly close to being a postseason team without having gotten over the hump.
In 2018, the Bulldogs finished 39-20 and came in second in Conference USA with a 21-9 record, but missed the cut. In 2019, they were very much on track to be in the postseason discussion with a 28-13 record before the tornado, but perhaps understandably given the situation, they tailed off as the season wound down, going 6-11 in their last 17 games to miss out on a regional again.
Maintaining consistency down the stretch will be the key to La Tech breaking through into a regional for the first time under Burroughs, but it’s worth noting that it has already laid the groundwork for building a postseason-quality resume and it’s no secret to this group that it is capable of something special.
“You can just hear them talking in the dugout, you can hear them when we’re having team meetings and the way they’re locked in, and you can tell, you get the vibe of the team really, really quick and (the) pulse of the team,” Burroughs said. “They’re focused. They want to win. They want to leave their mark here, they want to leave their legacy, and they want to go to the promised land like everybody. They want to get to Omaha.”
The next big test looms this weekend, as Louisiana Tech begins Conference USA play with a road four-game series against a familiar foe in Southern Mississippi. Not only did Burroughs serve as an assistant at USM from 1999-2007, where he worked alongside current USM coach Scott Berry, but all three of the assistants on Berry’s current staff—Christian Ostrander, Travis Creel and Nick Ammirati—at one point worked as assistants for Burroughs.
So, Burroughs knows as well as anyone that no matter how well your team is playing, there’s not necessarily ever a good time to try to go down to Hattiesburg and win a series, especially when USM is also playing well, which is the case right now.
The Golden Eagles will go into the series with a 13-6 record, having won nine of their last 10 games, including a 5-4 win Tuesday at No. 23 Alabama.
“I don’t think it really matters where it falls (in the schedule),” Burroughs said. “I think they’re playing good, we’re playing good, so why not? Let’s go hook it up and see what happens.”
Southern Miss will return the trip later this season for four more games, but this opening series will put one of these two teams in the driver’s seat in Conference USA. And for Louisiana Tech, it would mean one more big step toward this resilient group making good on the promise it's shown so far.
Who Has Changed Fortunes for the Better in 2021?
Last week in this space, we went through notable teams that were off to fast starts in 2020 that haven’t been able to replicate that same success early in 2021. From losing some important players off the roster after 2020 to playing a tougher schedule to simply not playing as well, there were myriad reasons why a team might have ended up on that list.
This week, we’ll take a look at the inverse. Which teams got out of the gate slowly last season that are now sporting markedly better records?
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Here is the list of teams, in alphabetical order, that stand out most.
|Team||2020 Record||2021 Record|
The first thing to notice here is that there aren’t as many on this list as there were on last week’s list. One explanation is that there weren’t as many nonconference games played this season, and relatedly, many conferences got league play started extra early. There just simply weren’t as many chances for teams to pad overall records by scheduling overmatched foes early on.
Like last week’s list, there are various reasons why a team might appear here. Some are one-off scenarios, like Wright State, which is here precisely because it got Horizon League play started early. After understandably going 0-5 against Vanderbilt and Alabama to begin the season, the Raiders have ripped off a 12-0 start in conference play.
Others have taken advantage of nonconference schedules that were a little lighter this season, like St. John’s. In 2020, it spent all but two games on the road playing teams with the inherent advantage of having practiced outside all preseason. This season, forced to play a more regional schedule, it got off to a fast start against fellow Northeastern teams.
The most notable thing about this list, though, is the presence of three different Pac-12 teams, all of which just seem to be better in 2021. Stanford had a young squad in 2020 and was clearly working through growing pains, Oregon State was working with a new coaching staff last season and Cal lost a lot of talent, most notably Andrew Vaughn, after the 2019 season, so it stands to reasons that all three would struggle in 2020, and now perhaps we’re seeing these teams turn the page.
The 2021 college baseball season has been unique for everyone, but for these teams, turning the calendar over has been a good thing.
Stop the Fight in the Horizon League
As noted above, Wright State is off to some kind of hot start in Horizon League play this season. It’s 12-0, and honestly, that record doesn’t totally do justice to just how dominant the Raiders have been.
In the 12-game winning streak, the Raiders have scored fewer than six runs just once. At the same time, the pitching staff hasn’t allowed more than five runs in any single game. And just twice, a 2-1 win over Youngstown State in the first game of a doubleheader on March 13 and a 7-5 win over Illinois-Chicago to begin that series last weekend, have they won a game by fewer than five runs.
The four-game sweep over UIC, on the road no less, is an important benchmark because the Flames have traditionally been WSU’s primary competition within the league. But rather than being tested, the Raiders won the four games by a combined 38-14 score, and after the 7-5 game on Friday, the series truly wasn’t competitive.
The lineup, which is hitting .278/.396/.488, is led by second baseman Tyler Black (.410/.526/.803, 6 HR), who doubles as an intriguing prospect for the upcoming draft. Center fielder Quincy Hamilton (.281/.468/.684, 6 HR) has also provided some pop. That pair, along with shortstop and leadoff hitter Damon Dues (.308/.439/.446), can also make some things happen on the bases, as the they've combined for 15 stolen bases.
On the mound, with Horizon League series all being four games, the Raiders need four guys they can count on, and so far, they have that with righthander Jake Schrand (2-2, 3.41), righthander Bradley Brehmer (3-1, 3.08), lefthander Alex Theis (1-0, 4.50) and righthander Austin Cline (3-1, 1.98).
Schrand, who threw the ball well earlier this season against Alabama, giving up just one run in five innings, has good stuff, with a fastball that averages more than 92 mph and has been up to 96 this season. In 29 innings, he has struck out 44 and walked just five.
Cline has put up similarly good peripheral numbers, with 44 strikeouts and seven walks in 27.1 innings, and he has the distinction of having thrown four shutout frames with six strikeouts against Vanderbilt to open his season.
Wright State being really good within the context of the Horizon League is nothing new. In fact, it’s something of a default setting for that program. But this group, through three weekends, has been head and shoulders above the competition.
The season is still young, but it doesn’t look like we need to see anymore. The class of the Horizon League is already clear.