During the Tim Tadlock era, we’ve all come to expect the Texas Tech baseball program to be an annual College World Series contender. But keeping a program at the top of the national conversation on a yearly basis is no easy task.
As proof, just consider the fact that there is only one program in the nation that is hosting its fifth consecutive regional this year. Of course, that program is Tadlock’s.
While June baseball at Rip Griffin Park has become an annual rite of summer for Texas Tech baseball fans, the reality is that we shouldn’t take for granted what this program has accomplished this year. In fact, given all of the adversity Tech has faced in 2021, a case could be made that this year has been Tim Tadlock’s best coaching job.
Prior to the start of the season, the injury bug that would come to define 2021 hit the Red Raiders hard. Most notably, Tadlock would lose a projected weekend starter, Hunter Dobbins, to Tommy John surgery.
In 2020, Dobbins showed signs of becoming a true weapon for the Red Raiders. Over the course of 14 appearances, he threw 20 innings and racked up 25 strikeouts with only five walks while posting an ERA under 2.00. What’s more, during the fall, his fastball was clocked at 98 MPH and many were high on him as a potential piece to Tadlock’s starting rotation.
But Dobbins wasn’t the only Red Raider to lose his 2021 season to Tommy John surgery prior to the start of play. Relievers Austin Becker and Jakob Brustoski also had to have elbow surgery and were lost for the year thus weakening Tech’s bullpen significantly.
Then, just a week prior to the start of the season, Tech had to suspend practice due to the ice storm that paralyzed the entire state of Texas in February. That came as terrible timing for a team that was set to open the year against three top-10 teams in the first weekend. As most recall, Tech struggled in that opening three-game set in Arlington, Texas falling to Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State and the layoff due to the storm was likely a huge factor in those defeats.
Unfortunately, the injuries were not finished for the year. And once again, it was the Red Raider pitching staff that was impacted.
In mid-April, weekend starter Brandon Birdsell was lost for the year with a rotator cuff injury. At the time he went down, he was arguably the Red Raiders’ best starter as he had a 4-1 record with a 3.06 ERA. Thus, if you assume that Dobbins was also going to be part of the weekend rotation, Tadlock has had to face half of this season without two-thirds of his projected weekend rotation.
But the injuries were not just limited to the pitching staff. Just days after the news about Birdsell broke, Tech would lose two important position players as well.
A back injury would bring an end to Dylan Neuse’s season. The speedy center fielder was named the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year but his season was cut to just 26 games during which he hit .281 with a homer and 16 RBI. Losing a bat of that caliber (Neuse hit .355 in 19 games in 2020) and a player with that type of speed was a huge blow to the top of the Red Raider lineup.
Also taking a toll in the batting order was a thumb injury to Kurt Wilson. The junior was hitting .261 with a pair of homers and 11 RBI when he sustained his injury. Though he can’t swing a bat right now, Wilson is still contributing to the team as a relief pitcher as he’s come back to make three relief appearances since May 4th during which he’s amassed a 3.37 ERA. Still, his value as a hitter and a versatile fielder who can play third base and the corner outfield spots was more important to this year’s team than is his work as a back-of-the-bullpen arm.
But through it all, Tim Tadlock’s team has remained one of the best in the nation. Tech took three-game series against two other top-8 seeds in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Texas and TCU, while managing to finish third in the Big 12 standings.
It is a testament to this team’s depth but also to Tadlock’s ability to adjust on the fly. Pulling Micah Dallas out of the pen and inserting him into the weekend rotation has helped offset Birdsell’s absence. Meanwhile, Tadlock’s juggling of the lineup despite key losses has been nothing short of masterful as Tech has still managed to hit .276 as a team while finishing second in the Big 12 in homers with 83.
The result is yet another regional in Lubbock and another top-8 seed for the Red Raiders. But regardless of what happens in June, the 2021 season should be remembered as one of Tim Tadlock’s best seasons as a head coach.