Though Texas Tech baseball fans will likely only remember the three games that the Red Raiders played in the 2021 Lubbock regional, (and given how easily Tech mowed through Army, North Carolina, and UCLA by a combined score of 22-7, most are unlikely to recall too many details of those games anyway), the most pivotal game of the weekend didn’t involve the Red Raiders at all. Rather, it was Friday night’s contest between the Bruins and the Tar Heels that proved to set the tone for the entire weekend.
Though Texas Tech clearly was the best team in this four-team field, their path to the Super Regionals was made all the more relaxing because of a decision by UCLA head coach John Savage. While North Carolina started their ace Austin Love in the opener against the Bruins, UCLA decided to roll with Jesse Bergin who entered that game with an ERA of 4.24.
That left the Bruins’ ace, Sean Mullen, to sit and watch and hope that his team would come through so that he could face off with the Red Raiders on Saturday. Mullen entered the regional with a 9-1 overall record and a 3.19 ERA and 89 strikeouts to only 38 walks on the season.
Mullen was UCLA’s best starter by a significant margin and Savage gambled hoping that his team could beat UNC and their ace on Friday so that his ace could match up with the Red Raiders. Of course, we know that Savage’s plan backfired as his team fell on Friday 5-4 forcing him to use Mullen in the losers’ bracket game against Army on Saturday. (For what it’s worth, Mullen was less than spectacular that day giving up three runs on six his in just 3.2 innings of work.)
The result was that a UNC team that had a weakness in the starting rotation wound up being Tech’s Saturday opponent. As most astute baseball fans are aware, in a regional setting, winning the first two games is a huge lift as it puts a team into the championship round with no losses meaning that there is some margin for error that the team coming out of the losers’ bracket won’t have.
So because of Savage’s ill-fated decision, Tech’s opponent in the crucial second game was a Tar Heel team that felt so poorly about its remaining starters that it asked its top reliever Gage Gillian to make his first start of the year. As we know by now, that didn’t work out so well for the Heels as Gillian was able to give his team only two innings allowing two runs and three hits.
What’s more, because UCLA had to use their top starter against No. 4 seed Army, and because they had to fire so many pitching bullets to get through the losers’ bracket, they were a depleted pitching staff by the time they met up with the Red Raiders on Sunday. Forced to turn to reliever Kyle Mora and his 4.1 ERA, the Bruins began Sunday’s game facing an uphill battle and in the end, proved to be no match for the Red Raiders.
It’s an interesting study into how one head coach’s decisions can impact an entire regional weekend. Fortunately for Tech, Tim Tadlock pushed all of the right buttons on the weekend and that is one of three reasons why his team was able to breeze into the Super Regionals.