Maybe the key for the Texas Tech baseball team is to enter the Big 12 Tournament with its backs against the wall. That was the case this week as, in order to feel comfortable about earning a birth in the NCAA Tournament next week, Tech needed to perform well in an event that has long been a nightmare for the program.
For most of the 2023 season, this team has been rather frustrating. Unable to put together consistent pitching and prone to games of offensive ineptitude despite fielding one of the top lineups in the Big 12, Tim Tadlock’s team entered the back half of May in an unusual position; squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. But through two games of the Big 12 Tournament in Arlington, Texas, the Red Raiders might have secured a birth in the field of 64.
Coming into the event as the No. 6 seed not much was expected of the Red Raiders as the games got underway at the home of the Texas Rangers, Globe Life Field. But on Wednesday, lefty starter Mason Molina helped carry his team to a 6-2 win over No. 21 West Virginia, a team that ended the regular season in a three-way tie for first place in the conference (but because of tiebreakers, the Mountaineers were seeded third in the league tournament behind Texas and Oklahoma State).
Tossing six complete innings, Molina gave up one run and four hits while striking out six and walking three. He’s now 5-2 with a 3.72 era on the season as the unquestioned top starter for the Red Raiders. The sophomore from California helped keep the WVU offense in what has become a prolonged slump as the Mountaineers failed to top five runs for the sixth time in their last seven games.
At the plate, solo homers from first baseman Gavin Kash and second baseman Austin Green paced an offense that jumped out to a 3-0 lead and scored four runs off of WVU starter David Hagaman, a redshirt freshman making his first start at the college level. It was a weird decision to start the youngster to open the tournament given that the Mountaineers had plenty to play for as they are in the mix to host a regional next weekend. But given that they were swept out of the Big 12 Tournament by losing to Oklahoma State on Thursday, that dream seems unlikely now.
Beating the Mountaineers for the second time in four meetings this year certainly helped Tech’s chances of getting into the NCAA Tournament as well, though hosting a regional is out of the question. Still, there was work to be done to slide off the bubble and land solidly in the field.
That’s why Thursday’s dramatic late-night walk-off win over Oklahoma was critical. Trailing 5-0 in the top of the 4th inning, Tech finally began to fight back with four runs in the bottom of that frame. But after each team would plate a run in the 5th, OU put up three more in the 6th to take a 9-5 lead into the late innings.
However, Tech’s offense continued to chip away. In the 7th, catcher Dylan Maxey clubbed a two-run homer to chop the lead in half. Then, in the bottom of the 9th, Tech would use four consecutive two-out hits to plate three runs for the win.
The fatal blow for OU was a scorching liner off the bat of third baseman Kevin Bazzell that the OU third baseman got a glove on but couldn’t snare. The hit broke an 0-9 slump in the tournament for Bazzell and helped Tech secure the team’s first win this year in 15 games when trailing after the 8th inning as shortstop Tracer Lopez scampered home from third base.
The star of the night though might have been relief pitcher Josh Sanders. The junior came on in the 7th inning to pitch three perfect frames allowing Tech’s offense an opportunity to claw back.
This is the first time since 1998 that the Red Raiders have begun the Big 12 Tournament 2-0. In fact, it’s only the second time in the Tim Tadlock era that they have managed to win at least two games in the event. (Though, in many of those years, Tadlock refused to sell out to win an event that forces teams to exhaust their pitching staff with as many as six games potentially played in a week. Of course, on most of those occasions, Tech was already a lock to host a regional before the Big 12 Tournament even began.)
Now into the semifinal round with two chances to win one game to reach the finals, Tech could win a third game in the event for just the second time since winning it all in 1998.
One factor that has helped the Red Raiders overcome their Big 12 Tournament blues is that the defense has been solid thus far with only one error committed in the two games. That’s a stark contrast to the regular season when Tech led the Big 12 with 80 errors.
Now, the Red Raiders wait to see whether Oklahoma or Oklahoma State will be their foe on Saturday at 12:30 pm Central. The two Bedlam rivals meet on Friday night for the right to face the Red Raiders. But whatever happens from here on, with an R.P.I ranking that has risen to 38th nationally, the Red Raiders can likely rest easy knowing that their NCAA Tournament ticket has been punched thanks to a pair of impressive and important wins in an event that has been this program’s stumbling block for 25 years.