As the Texas Tech baseball team is set to open the season tonight against Arkansas, it is clear that this team has more than enough offense to slug its way to Omaha again.
Back in the halcyon days of the Mike Leach era of Texas Tech football, a t-shirt reading “Texas Tech Football: We Score A Lot!” was popular among the Red Raider fan base. But now days, that double entendre more aptly applies to the Texas Tech baseball program and in 2021, there’s a chance that Tim Tadlock’s team could take that saying to an entirely new level.
That’s because the latest version of the Red Raiders returns four hitters from last year’s primary lineup who hit over .300. Between them, Tech got 12 homers and 81 RBI in just 19 games in 2020.
Junior Dylan Neuse is back to lead this year’s team and with the departure of 2020 fan favorite Brian Klein, the Keller native will likely be next face of the Texas Tech baseball program. Coming off of a season in which he hit .355 and drove in 12, he enters this year a preseason All-American in the outfield and he will likely be the catalyst at or near the top of the lineup.
With elite speed, Neuse is an idea leadoff hitter should Tadlock choose to use him in that role. In fact, last year, he led the Big 12 with 22 runs scored.
Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be right if Texas Tech didn’t have a slugger at first base and this year, that role is likely to be fulfilled by Cole Stilwell. The sophomore from Rockwall, Texas hit .345 in 2020 with a pair of homers and 18 RBI. And when the season was shut down for COVID-19, he was in the midst of a 16-game streak of reaching base safely. Now, he looks to return to that form in 2021 where he could be the next huge bat to play first base for the Red Raiders following in the footsteps of guys like Cam Warren and Eric Gutierrez.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on a pair of potential breakout stars for the Red Raiders at the plate. Nate Rombach is a name that most avid Texas Tech baseball fans know but by the time this season is over, he could be a household name around the Big 12.
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Last year, as a freshman who was Tech’s primary designated hitter, the Mansfield, Texas product hit .308 and went deep six times while driving in 27 runs. He also led the team with a .667 slugging percentage.
Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if Dru Baker takes a step forward this season. The sophomore from Tomball, Texas hit a modest .266 last year while transitioning to the outfield but he reached base safely in 16 of 17 appearances. He could be ready for a massive step forward this season and if that happens, he could add some serious pop to the second half of the lineup.
One huge bat that might be slow to get out of the gates though is shortstop Cal Conley. According to Tadlock, the dynamic redshirt freshman who hit a robust .371 last year with 24 RBI, is not fully healthy to begin the year and has not participated in any of the team’s intrasquad scrimmages.
That will thrust Kurt Wilson into the starting job for the time being. A two-way player for Tech, he began as an outfielder but was used primarily as a reliever last season. But early this year, he will have to focus on playing the game’s most demanding defensive position in Conley’s place.
It will be interesting to see how his bat looks this weekend because we didn’t see him get but one at-bat last year. But of course, his heroic game-winning 3-run homer in the 8th inning of game 3 of the 2019 Super Regional against Oklahoma State is a reminder that he has some thunder in his bat and a flare for the dramatic. But now, Tech needs him to be steady and consistent in the middle of the infield while holding his own at the dish.
Overall, this is a team that has everything a head coach could want in an offensive attack. Once Conley returns to form, he and Neuse should fly around the bases ahead of the power provided by Rombach, Stilwell and the rest. It’s a lineup that will strike fear in the hearts of opposing pitching staffs and one that is more than potent enough to carry the Red Raiders back to Omaha.