On the surface, there is no telling what will happen this weekend in Lubbock.
Two evenly matched opponents will meet for a critical Big 12 series from Friday-Sunday as #12 TCU gets set to face #8 Texas Tech.
Both teams opened the season the same way, at the Globe Life Field Showdown where TCU dropped two games and Texas Tech lost all three. But the tide quickly turned as they each went on a tear through the remainder of non-conference play.
Texas Tech was unbeatable for the remainder of its non-conference slate following the rough weekend in Arlington, as the Red Raiders won 14 straight against mid-major programs such as Gonzaga, UConn, and Houston Baptist. They also defeated in-state rivals Texas State, Texas A&M Corpus-Christi, and Sam Houston State at the Shriners Classic in Houston.
Big 12 play has been a different story as of late for head coach Tim Tadlock’s squad, as it captured a 2-1 series victory over Oklahoma State, but was stunned by unranked Kansas State last weekend, losing the series 2-1 after thumping the Wildcats 17-1 in the series opener.
TCU has had far fewer struggles with zero losses in conference play as it enters the weekend, having swept both Oklahoma and Baylor to open the Big 12 schedule. With a perfect 6-0 record, the Horned Frogs lead the Big 12 standings, but Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are in pursuit.
The Horned Frogs rebounded from that weekend in Arlington, but unlike Texas Tech, failed to go undefeated in the remainder of its non-conference slate. In fact, TCU looked rather inconsistent as it lost a series to Gonzaga 2-1, and fell in back-to-back games at the hands of Sam Houston State and Texas State. Yet, the Horned Frogs began clicking at the right time, following a 2-1 series win against Louisiana.
Hitting is an obvious strength for both squads, and could produce a few high-scoring affairs, as they are tied for third in the Big 12 with a team batting average of .294.
Texas Tech’s lethal offense, which leads the Big 12 in home runs with 26, is paced by a duo of infielders in second baseman Jace Jung, and shortstop Cal Conley, as well as a duo of outfielders, with Dru Baker and Dylan Neuse.
Jung, the younger brother of former Red Raider infielder Josh Jung, has flashed just as much power as his older brother this season, with a league-leading 11 homers and 35 RBI. Conley is eighth in the league in hits (36) and is one of three Red Raiders, including Jung (.388) to have a batting average above .300 (.336).
Rounding out what might be the best trio of sluggers in the Big 12 this season is Baker. The right fielder may have only hit two homers this season but has made up for it with a team-best 44 hits and 33 runs scored, both of which rank third in the league. His batting average has been perhaps Baker’s most surprising statistic, as opposing pitchers have struggled to find ways to beat him, and the sophomore has posted a .427 batting average.
Neuse is an ideal leadoff hitter, consistently finding a way on the basepaths. He enters the weekend with a .444 on-base percentage.
That is not to say the Red Raiders will overmatch TCU at the plate. The Horned Frogs have a core group that has been just as consistent this season, led by fifth-year senior Gene Wood.
Known across the league for his poise and leadership, Wood is in his second year in Fort Worth after spending four years at Alabama. Though his stats do not jump off the page, with a .278 batting average, six home runs, and 28 RBI, Wood has plenty of power, and will make opposing pitchers pay if he gets a good pitch in the zone. One benefit to TCU having an experienced utility man such as Wood is that the sixth-year senior has an excellent eye at the plate, and along with it, plenty of plate discipline.
Another Horned Frog with the ability to work the count is outfielder Elijah Nunez, who leads the Big 12 in walks with 25. Nunez is just a freshman, but plays like a senior, with a balanced approach and ability to make contact. TCU, ranked second behind Texas Tech in team on-base percentage (.415), has plenty of hitters who can make contact and put the ball in play.
Also notable in the TCU lineup is outfielder Phillip Sikes, who has flashed his power throughout the first half of the season, with a team-high batting average of .340. He has hit just two home runs, but drives the ball into the gap, and has 12 doubles on the season.
With both teams having demonstrated an equal ability to make contact and put runs on the board, the pitching staffs will be in for a challenge.
Friday’s night’s pitching showdown is set to pit Texas Tech right-hander Brandon Birdsell against TCU left-hander Russell Smith. Each has posted a 4-1 record this season, and won the last four starts in which he earned the decision.
Birdsell comes off a phenomenal outing against Kansas State, in which the sophomore allowed two hits and one earned run through five innings of work. He only walked one batter and struck out four.
Smith had slightly more trouble than Birdsell in his start last Thursday at Oklahoma, but still earned the win, after giving up four hits and three earned runs in a seven-inning appearance. He stuck out eight and only walked two.
Considering the offensive firepower from both sides, it is likely that we will see more of the bullpens, as the starters may be sent to the showers earlier than in a typical series.
TCU’s bullpen has been anchored by freshman River Giddings, who has yet to allow an earned run in 11.2 innings of work and nine appearances. Haylen Green is also a consistent force on the hill for the Horned Frogs, and has fired 31 innings in 14 outings with an ERA of 2.01.
The Red Raider bullpen has also closed out games well, and used a variety of arms to get the job done. One intriguing reliever is Ryan Sublette. His ERA (3.63) is higher than head coach Tim Tadlock would like, but the right-hander hits the strike zone with an arsenal of pitches, and has 24 strikeouts through 17.1 innings.
Riley's Prediction: This is a series I could see going either way. Records can go out the window, because as competitive as the Big 12 is, there is no telling who has the advantage. With both squads hitting as well as they have, pitching will be critical, especially from the relievers. I do think home field advantage is pivotal in a series as evenly matched as this one appears to be, so I will take Texas Tech winning the series 2-1.