Texas Tech Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
Texas Tech has developed into a consistent contender in the Big 12 and for the College World Series under coach Tim Tadlock. The Red Raiders were again off to an outstanding start in 2020 and finished the season 16-3 and No. 2 in the nation.
Though they lost some key players to the professional ranks over the summer, the Red Raiders this year again look formidable and rank No. 2 in the Never Too Early Top 25. They’ll enter the season as the Big 12 favorites thanks to impressive depth on the mound and a talented group of position players.
As Texas Tech looks to 2021, here are five questions it is looking to answer this fall.
How will Texas Tech shape its pitching staff?
From their 2020 team, the Red Raiders lost starters Clayton Beeter and Bryce Bonnin and powerful reliever John McMillon to pro ball. Despite those departures, Texas Tech has a wealth of pitching at its disposal, especially after adding a top-15 recruiting class that consisted almost entirely of pitchers.
So, what will the staff look like? Frankly, it’s too early to know. Under Tadlock, Texas Tech has made bold moves with its pitching staff, including last year when Beeter and Micah Dallas unexpectedly traded places at the front of the rotation and back of the bullpen.
The Red Raiders have a lot of experience back on the staff, including in the rotation. Austin Becker, Hunter Dobbins and Mason Montgomery all started at least three games this past spring and Dallas made 13 starts as a freshman in 2019.
There’s plenty of experience among the Red Raiders’ relievers, as well. Jacob Brustoski, Connor Queen and Ryan Sublette are all in their fourth or fifth year of college baseball and can fill a variety of roles. Righthander Andrew Devine and lefthander Eli Riechmann both impressed as sophomores in 2020.
Texas Tech also added some impressive newcomers on the mound, starting with junior college transfer Brandon Birdsell. Freshmen such as Brendan Girton, Nick Gorby, Chase Hampton and Levi Wells all have the ability to quickly make an impact on the mound.
With so many arms in the mix, Tadlock and pitching coach Matt Gardner have plenty of options to put the staff together. All that depth will make the Red Raiders formidable in the Big 12 and beyond in 2021.
After a big summer, is Jace Jung on the verge of a breakout?
Jung, the younger brother of former All-American Josh Jung, came to Lubbock with lofty expectations and this spring hit .264/.438/.604 with four home runs in 19 games. Now, he’ll try to use his summer performance as a springboard to a big second season in Lubbock.
Jung spent the summer playing for the Santa Barbara Foresters and helped them win the National Baseball Congress World Series. He was a force at the plate, hitting .404/.547/.747 with 10 home runs in 30 games.
It’s hard to put too much stock in summer ball statistics in such a strange year—the Foresters were playing an independent schedule this summer after the California Collegiate League canceled its season—but it’s also hard not to be impressed by Jung’s output.
He’ll get his chance in 2021 to impress with the Red Raiders. He’s expected to move from third base to second base, filling the hole left now that Brian Klein is in pro ball.
“He’s very steady, consistent and he understands the game is day to day,” Tadlock said. “He definitely embraces that. He’s going to turn out to be a good player.”
Jung probably won’t match his summer ball numbers with Texas Tech in 2021, but he has what it takes to take the next step and become a key figure in the Red Raiders’ lineup.
How will Texas Tech balance catchers Braxton Fulford and Nate Rombach?
The Red Raiders have the benefit of two strong options behind the plate in fourth-year junior Braxton Fulford and second-year freshman Nate Rombach. As they did in 2020, both will see time behind the plate in 2021 while mixed in at other spots.
Fulford stands out for his defense and provides plenty of impact behind the plate. His experience is important for a new-look pitching staff and his arm helps shut down opponents’ running game.
“He’s a good athlete, can call a game if he needs to, he’s a tough out and he can handle the bat,” Tadlock said. “Having Braxton back there to help those young guys along the way is good.”
Rombach, meanwhile, offers a powerful bat and will be a key part of the lineup after hitting .308/.440/.677 with six home runs in 19 games. He can also play first base or serve as DH, but has made strides defensively since the spring and will push Fulford for time behind the plate.
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How is the rest of the lineup shaping up?
The Red Raiders last spring had a young lineup and, as a result, have few holes to work out for 2021. Jung moving to second base would fill Texas Tech’s biggest vacancy and if he is able to take a step forward offensively, he could also take Klein’s spot in the three-hole.
Fourth-year outfielder Dylan Neuse is sure to again take on a key role at the top of the order after hitting .355/.438/.487 with 12 stolen bases in 2020. With Klein now gone, Neuse’s on-base skills and speed will be especially important for the Red Raiders.
“He’s swung the bat real good this fall,” Tadlock said. “He can impact the game a lot of ways. He’s been around, he’s seen a lot of Big 12 baseball.”
But just because Texas Tech has the bulk of its lineup returning doesn’t mean there isn’t competition. It has a lot of depth around the diamond, in part because of the versatility of players like Neuse, Dru Baker and Kurt Wilson, who is expected to be more of a full-time hitter after spending the last few years as a two-way player.
The Red Raiders could also get a boost from a player like outfielder Max Marusak, one of the fastest players in the nation, taking a step forward. Texas Tech also added junior college transfer Braydon Runion, who adds another powerful bat to the mix.
Ultimately, Texas Tech’s lineup in 2021 is likely to look much like it did in 2020. That’s bad news for opposing pitchers and good news for the Red Raiders after they hit .319/.434/.527 as a team and averaged 9.3 runs per game.
Does Texas Tech have what it takes to return to Omaha?
The Red Raiders look like one of the most complete teams in the nation. While they don’t have a returning ace or closer, their quantity on the mound gives them quality. Similarly, they don’t return a hitter who has established himself as a surefire All-American, but their lineup could be the deepest in the Big 12 and among the best nationally.
The Red Raiders’ young hitters answered some big questions early last season when they helped the team race out to a strong start to the season. If their young pitchers can do something similar this season, Texas Tech will look like one of the national championship favorites.
The ingredients are all there for Texas Tech as it chases its fifth trip to the College World Series in seven tries.