NCAA Regional: #4 Fairfield Stags (32-24) vs. #1 Texas Tech Red Raiders (41-16)
WHEN: Friday, June 3 -- 12:00 PM PT/1:00 PM MT
WHERE: Dan Law Field at Rip Griffin Park; Lubbock, TX
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN3/WatchESPN
Success on the diamond rarely comes easily in the Big 12.
Two years ago, however, the Texas Tech Red Raiders broke through to claim the first College World Series berth in program history. After taking a step back in the standings last year, prognosticators believed Tim Tadlock's team would factor into a very competitive race to the top: Three Big 12 teams were ranked in a composite of top 25 polls, though the Red Raiders weren't one of them. Few expected them to bounce all the way back.
Now, they're hosting their first regional since 1999.
The national fifth seed carry more expectations than anyone else in this regional, and to learn more about why, I reached out to Jonathan Althaus, who is the main baseball writer over at SB Nation's Texas Tech blog, Viva the Matadors.
Matthew Kenerly: None of the various preseason polls had the Red Raiders in the preseason top 25, and the preseason poll predicted that TTU would finish fifth in the conference. How did your initial expectations line up with those broader calls, and what's the one big way Tech has exceeded those expectations?
Jonathan Althaus: Coming into the season, we knew we had an experienced lineup that had a bit of a chip on their shoulder after failing to make the postseason the year before, but had a very young and inexperienced pitching staff. The team felt like they would have a strong year, and were determined to put a sub-par year behind them. I really felt like they would play better than the year before, but not be able to be as dominant in conference play as they were. The one word I would use to describe why the team did exceed expectations would be surprising.
Freshman pitchers Davis Martin and Steven Gingery took over when ace Ryan Moseley had some early season struggles. I was hoping they would be able to make an impact, but did not see them being 2 of the top 3 pitchers in Big 12 play. In the lineup, everyone knew Gutierrez, Smith, and Neslony would make an impact at the plate, but surprising most was the play of Tanner Gardner, who we didn't have projected to start and then he ended up in the top 10 in several Big 12 statistics.
MK: What can you tell us about conference Player of the Year Eric Gutierrez (.345/.472/.624)? What kind of problem does he pose for pitchers in this regional?
JA: Eric Gutierrez, or "Gute", as he is affectionately known to Red Raider fans, has been a mainstay on this team for 4 years now, starting over 230 straight games. When current Tech head coach Tim Tadlock was an assistant at Oklahoma, he was the only one who recruited Eric, but Oklahoma wasn't in need of a power hitter. Tadlock then came to Lubbock, and Gute came to Lubbock right away, still having only been recruited by a single D1 coach. 2 years ago, Eric had a massive year, and became famous in the HR derby in Omaha, hitting 52 jacks in the competition, but losing to his former high school teammate.
This year, he won the Big 12 player of the year even though he batted out of the 6-spot most of the season. Eric is a power hitter, but not all of his big hits are home runs. The leader of the team on and off the field, Eric is a rock at 1st base, and will find a way to get on base no matter what the pitcher decides to throw at him.
MK: I noticed in the box scores that sophomore outfielder Tanner Gardner (.376/.487/.562) was absent from the last two games of the conference tournament. How important has he been to the team's overall success?
JA: Tanner Gardner was rounding third base in the first game of our tournament and, on the way home, started limping severly and was holding his hamstring. The fans feared the worst, and he did not return the rest of the tournament. The amount of fan outcry at his injury shows how much he means to the team in the fans' eyes. Gardner lost the Big 12 batting title by .001, but led the league in OBP, seeming to have a multi-hit game every appearance this season. The lineup is deep enough that losing one player shouldn't have hindered us in the tournament, but not having him definitely had an impact as the lineup was relatively unchanged throughout the season. Gardner is expected to be back this weekend, and when he is on a hot streak, he drives the offense.
MK: What other kind of lingering concerns, if any, do you have from Texas Tech's early exit from the conference tournament?
JA: If Tech starts off slowly against Fairfield, allows them to build a big lead, or blows an early lead, there will be major concern of a lingering effect. However, I do not see that happening. After losing a series to Texas at home, the team went on the road to face TCU, in a series that could ultimately decide the Big 12 champ. They bounced back right away, taking 2 of 3 from a tough Horned Frogs squad that just won the Big 12 tournament. I expect to see the same this weekend, bouncing back right away as we defend our turf.
MK: What can you tell us about whomever will take the ball in game one against Fairfield?
JA: Freshman Davis Martin has been our Friday starter most of the season, and I expect him to be on the mound against Fairfield on Friday afternoon. Davis has gone 8-0 this year and was a major reason the Red Raiders won the first game of every conference series this year. When Davis is on, he is getting a lot of ground outs, and is going through batters quickly and efficiently. In the middle of the season, when Davis was at his best, games he started and went deep into usually lasted around 2.5 hours. However, he is just a freshman, and this will be a big stage for him to succeed in.
MK: Having secured a national seed and the possibility of a super regional date with Virginia, what do your expectations for this team look like now? Can this team get to Omaha?
JA: After Tech started sweeping Big 12 series, especially against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the expectations started to rise. The team also was able to knock off Florida State, California, and Louisiana-Lafayette. Right now, the expectations are high, with Omaha the goal. Several members of the team have been to Omaha before, and know what it takes to win a regional and super regional. They played well enough in the regular season to win the conference and earned the national seed. Now, it's time to go prove that the respect that was shown by national media outlets was well deserved.