Under The Radar: Louisiana Tech Starts Strong

Image credit: Louisiana Tech center fielder Parker Bates (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Tech)

Over the course of three days, more than 4,000 fans packed Southeastern Louisiana’s Pat Kenelly Diamond. On display were Southeastern Louisiana and Louisiana Tech, two teams from opposite corners of Louisiana, both with fan bases that love college baseball and both with very real postseason aspirations heading into the season.

It was a fever dream of a scene that served to depict just how much college baseball can capture the imagination in the state of Louisiana, even beyond Louisiana State and Alex Box Stadium.

After sweeping host Southeastern Louisiana by scores of 13-8, 15-11 and 12-8, Louisiana Tech also hopes that it serves as a springboard for their first regional appearance since 2016 and just their second since 1987.

There are a whole host of reasons why the sweep stands out. The Bulldogs scored 40 runs, hit .364, got on base at a .459 clip and slugged .500. They came back from a 6-1 deficit on Friday, an 8-1 deficit in the series’ second game and an 8-4 deficit in the finale. It was also the first time since 2010 that the Lions had been swept on their home field.

Most of all, it’s a quality road series win that should serve as a positive on the Bulldogs’ postseason resume come May. LaTech (4-0) added to it Wednesday at home with a 3-2 victory against Louisiana-Lafayette, another solid, resume-building win in the early going.

Even this early in the season, having missed out on the postseason last season, the Bulldogs don’t want to miss any such opportunities. That mindset pushed them to get greedy and play for the sweep rather than being satisfied with winning two out of three.

“We had that discussion before we got off the bus (before Sunday’s game) that it’s great to win the series, but when we look back, remember that feeling you had last year,” Louisiana Tech had coach Lane Burroughs said. “Don’t ever forget what it felt like when you had a good year and you didn’t quite do enough to get in (the NCAA Tournament) and you’re watching teams play that you beat and you know you’re probably better than.

“That’s kind of been our mantra all year. Don’t forget that feeling last year when you got left out.”

The offensive attack over the weekend was led by some of the usual suspects. Shortstop and resident on-base machine Taylor Young went 6-for-9 with five walks and no strikeouts. Second baseman Hunter Wells, last season’s leading hitter, was 6-for-12 and chipped in with two stolen bases. Outfielder Mason Mallard, perhaps the fastest player and best basestealer in the league, was also 6-for-12. Center fielder Parker Bates, who led the team in RBIs last season, is out to a quick start in that category again, as he collected seven against the Lions.

It was an impressive, comprehensive offensive performance that helped Louisiana Tech outscore Southeastern Louisiana 28-5 in the middle innings of the three-game set.

“Our lineup is mature. It’s a veteran group of guys, it’s physical, it’s athletic,” Burroughs said. “We talk about being a chain and everybody is a link in that chain and make it hard on that guy (the pitcher) and take something from him. I thought our guys did that.”

The other clear bright spot from the weekend was the work of the LaTech bullpen, and they ended up needing it.

An all-senior starting rotation without the services of lefthander David Leal, who will miss a couple of months while recovering from foot surgery, faltered. Righthander Matt Miller allowed five runs in 1.2 innings, lefthander Logan Robbins surrendered eight runs (seven earned) in 2.2 innings and lefthander Logan Bailey allowed eight runs in 3.2 innings.

On Saturday, lefthander Kyle Griffen and righthander Braxton Smith came to the rescue and combined to throw 6.1 innings to close out the win, giving up three runs (two earned) with seven strikeouts. On Sunday, the lefthanded duo of Quinton Logan and Jonathan Fincher finished up even better. They teamed up to throw 5.1 shutout frames, giving up just two hits along the way.

The MVP of the weekend relief efforts, though, was clearly righthander Tyler Follis, who closed out the win on Friday by throwing 5.2 shutout innings, allowing just three hits and no walks with nine strikeouts. He picked up where he left off last season, when he had a 2.53 ERA as the team’s top reliever.

“Obviously, when you’ve got to go get your Friday guy in the second inning on Opening Day, it’s probably going to wreck your bullpen for the weekend,” Burroughs said. “It’s not something anybody wants to do.

“We were kind of depleted down there, and we asked some guys to step on the mound that hadn’t been out there, some younger guys, maybe their first time in Division I, and they showed up. It wasn’t easy for them by any stretch of the imagination. They were in the stretch a lot and they had runners on, they were pitching out of jams, but they just threw up zeroes.”

Miller, Robbins, and Bailey are all experienced veterans, so it’s reasonable to expect bounce backs from each of them, and the staff will get a boost from the eventual return of Leal. That would help make the Bulldogs a truly complete team.

“Those guys are competitors, they’ve been in the fire, they’ve pitched in some really, really stressful innings and games,” Burroughs said of his rotation. “I can tell you this. Nobody wants to get back out on that mound quicker than those guys do. You can just tell how disappointed they were.”

Interestingly, a pretty good template for the type of season they could enjoy is what we saw from their upcoming weekend opponent, Troy, last season.

The 2018 Trojans, with a veteran team built around collecting doubles in bunches, stealing bases with relative ease, and building a pitching staff with inning-eating starting pitchers and versatile bullpen arms, went 42-21 overall and 19-11 in the Sun Belt Conference and earned an at-large regionals bid.

With teams in leagues like Conference USA and the Sun Belt always looking for quality games against similarly talented teams, you get series like Louisiana Tech’s last against Southeastern Louisiana and the one ahead of them this weekend against Troy.

“The last two years we’ve been here, we’ve been right there with 39 wins. And last year, we had some huge wins against some great opponents, and I think they (the selection committee) sent a clear message that you need to play a great schedule. It’s intentional, we did it on purpose,” Burroughs said of the scheduling approach.

A series against a perennial postseason contender like Southeastern Louisiana and a quality Sun Belt club such as Troy is a good start to the great schedule that Burroughs speaks of, but it is only the start.

Two weeks after the home series against Troy, LaTech hits the road to take on Arkansas. Immediately after that, it returns home for a two-game midweek series against Sam Houston State. It also has quality midweek games sprinkled in against Louisiana and LSU, to go along with marquee conference series against Southern Mississippi and Florida Atlantic, both of which will be potential resume-building series wins.

Louisiana Tech will still have to win a good deal of those games to get where they want to go. The schedule can’t do all of the heavy lifting. But if what they showed to open the season is any indication of what they’ll be able to accomplish when they’re clicking on all cylinders, that won’t be a problem.

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