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Kendall Rogers | | February 5, 2020

Texas Tech returns plenty in hopes of third-straight College World Series

A look at the top college baseball matchups you don't want to miss before conference play

It’s another year with the same expectations for Texas Tech.

The Red Raiders have transformed into not only an Omaha mainstay over the past few seasons, they’ve also developed into a consistent national title contender.

Now, Tim Tadlock’s club looks to finish the job.

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Though the Red Raiders have the tough chore of replacing hard-hitting Josh Jung, Gabe Holt and Cam Warren, along with reliable pitchers such as Taylor Floyd and Caleb Kilian, there’s zero doubt the returning cast gives this program a chance to make history with their first national title.

Tadlock certainly isn’t prepared to anoint this year’s Red Raiders club as a slam-dunk championship. In his words, you must prove it. But he can’t help but to be excited about this team’s potential.

In addition to returning several premium arms, the Red Raiders also welcome back some quality hitters, including veteran leader Brian Klein, athletic Dru Baker, Dylan Neuse and much improved Braxton Fulford, among others.

“We’ve played two games this fall, and it was all about seeing what kinds of tools and ability we have. Since that point, it’s been a total tossup each day at practice. It’s the hardest time of year because you’re trying to evaluate four intra-squads a week,” Tadlock said. “There’s just really cool competition throughout the roster right now. There’s plenty of competition at several positions. We’re moving guys around right now, seeing where they might be the best fit. It’s been a lot of fun, that’s for sure.

“If you want to see a lot of 98s and things like that on the radar gun, Lubbock, Texas, is going to be the place to be,” he continued. “But you got to pitch and play defense, and you have to earn the right to win a lot of games and prep each day the right way.”

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While the Red Raiders welcome back enough sluggers to consider the offense a strength as fall workouts progress, the biggest plus at this point is the pitching staff, which is absolutely loaded with premium arms, specifically returning starters Micah Dallas and flamethrower John McMillon.

Without further ado, let’s break down the Red Raiders’ fall workouts:

Position Players

Dylan Neuse is a key returnee for the Red Raiders. The versatile do-it-all type of player finished last season with a .298 average and with some definite pop. This fall, he’s playing third base and expected to replace Josh Jung. However, Tadlock isn’t against moving him around more as other guys get comfortable. The Red Raiders also love the return of Brian Klein, who provides a lot of production and outstanding leadership.

“We stuck Neuse in the infield this fall. He played there at the Cape and did a nice job,” Tadlock said. “He could play the outfield, too, but for now, it’s third base. As for Klein, he’s such a great asset for us. No matter what situation we put him in, he’ll do well.”

Young catcher Braxton Fulford continues to make serious strides at the plate. Fulford was just OK offensively two seasons ago before hitting .298 with solid production for the Raiders last season. He’s taken yet another step forward this fall, continuing to tweak his adjustments from late last season to bolster his production. Fulford is yet another breakout candidate on this roster.

Cole Stilwell, another backstop option, also has swung the bat well this fall and has a chance to start at first base in the spring.

“Fulford has swung the bat awfully well for us. He’s a guy who played almost every day for the second half of last year as a freshman,” Tadlock said. “He made some adjustments and really started to execute some pitches during the season. You can probably plug him in anywhere you want to, but I struggle with the idea of telling him to squat behind the plate each day and then ask him to hit in the middle of the batting order. That’s a tough chore."

Two returning outfield options to watch include Cody Masters and Dru Baker. Masters is a speedy guy who hit .290 with five home runs last season, and his ability to stick in the outfield will hinge in the development of his arm strength. He’s a tremendous athlete but didn’t have much arm strength last season. Tadlock said it’s gotten much better since the spring.

“Masters’ deal is that he’s an offensive guy. The question is where can you get him on the field?” Tadlock said. “His arm was banged up last year and it’s coming along now … it’s gotten considerably better. He was kind of up and down during his summer out at Santa Barbara, too. The biggest thing with him is that one day it’s good and other days it isn’t."

Meanwhile, Baker is a terrific athlete who hit .321 in 137 at bats last season. Baker has a chance to be a premium bat for Tech, and thus the bat will keep him in the lineup and dictate where he plays in the field.

“The one cool thing about Dru is that he’s moving around all over the place out there,” Tadlock said. “He’s an above-average defender in the outfield and could stay there. He could end up at second base, or he could even end up at first base, though he hasn’t played the position before. He can pretty much play anywhere.”

Two guys who were on the team last season but didn’t play have had strong falls thus far, and they are infielders Cal Conley and T.J. Rumfield. Conley transferred to Tech from Miami (FL) last holiday break and had to sit out because of transfer rules. The talented infielder is holding his own in the middle infield, while Rumfield has been a pleasant surprise. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, lost some weight earlier this fall and has swung the bat very well this fall. He’s a solid defender, a big presence at first and impresses the coaching staff from an offensive standpoint.

“T.J. can really defend, and he’s having a strong fall. He’s just played really well this fall,” Tadlock said. “I would say that Cal is holding his own, too. He’s doing some really nice things for us this fall.”

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Some newcomers catching Tadlock’s attention include catcher/first baseman Nate Rombach, outfielder Dillon Carter and infielders Jace Jung and Jared Cushing. Rombach is a physical hitter who has an impressive presence in the box. Carter has shown well from an offensive standpoint and provides Tech with a quality lefthanded hitting option. Jung is not his brother Josh just yet, but Tadlock said he’s shown some glimpses of a younger Josh Jung. He’s hit some balls hard this fall. Then there’s Cushing, who has held his own in the infield and could be a solid option at either second or shortstop.

Finally, it will be interesting to see what Tech does with two-way talent Kurt Wilson in the spring. Wilson can help this team both offensively and on the mound, but Tadlock said he’s trying to find the right balance. Ideally, Wilson would be an everyday player for the Red Raiders, and his powerful arm, which can get up to 95-98 mph with the fastball, would be an incredible asset at the backend of the bullpen. But those roles are to be determined at this point.

“Kurt could play shortstop, he could do a lot of things,” Tadlock said. “He’s as gifted of a player as we’ve ever had in Lubbock. The pitching is always going to be there for him, so the question is where does he want to pitch [role wise].”

Pitching Staff

“We’ve got a lot of really good arms … I’d say elite arms, in terms of power arms,” Tadlock said. “But the question is, who’s going to step to the front and really execute pitches? That’s the question for us right now.”

Clayton Beeter could be the most intriguing arm to watch entering the spring. Beeter missed last season after having Tommy John surgery and is ready to become a front-line guy. Beeter’s fastball has been explosive and is jumping on hitters this fall, while the power slider is a big-time weapon as well.

“He’s definitely a guy who has a chance to take a huge step forward,” Tadlock said. “He went on the summer and got better, and it’s just different right now each time he steps on the mound. That ball … it just has a lot of jump to it right now. It’s cool to watch guys like Beeter and Bonnin. They both have a chance to take huge steps forward. It’s really up to them at this point.”

The Red Raiders got an early Christmas gift this past summer when John McMillon decided to return for his senior season. The flame-throwing right-hander continues to be a force for the Red Raiders, while Bryce Bonnin and Hunter Dobbins continue to improve. Bonnin showed premium arm strength last season and continues to improve, while Dobbins' breaking ball is much improved, and he’s gotten stronger. All three give the Red Raiders talented and experienced options in whatever roles they occupy.

Micah Dallas had a terrific freshman season for Tech and is another experienced, quality, arm expected to improve in the spring.

Talented left-hander Mason Montgomery is another potential big arm to watch. Montgomery showed glimpses of greatness last season but still had an ERA north of five. The hard-throwing lefty is showing improved stuff and better command this fall, along with the same hop on his fastball. Tadlock said Tech’s hitters have talked about how impressive the movement on his pitches can be.

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Freshman right-hander Andrew Devine has been a bright spot for Tech this fall. Devine can play several positions, but his forte with the Red Raiders might just be on the mound, where he’s shown an explosive arm this fall. Devine is a 5-foot-9, 160-pounder, whose fastball ranges 93-95 mph and is complemented by a terrific and easy delivery. He has good secondary stuff as well and could factor in as a starter or reliever.

Other freshmen to watch on the mound include right-handed pitchers Eli Kerim, Steven Vasquez and Brandon Hendrix. Kerim is a 5-foot-11, 180-pounder, who’s a converted catcher and will now pitch for the Red Raiders. He’s been 92-95 mph with his fastball, along with a power slider this fall. Vasquez is a 6-foot-1, 175-pounder, who has excellent pitchability, and Hendrix, the brother of former A&M standout righty Ryan Hendrix, has a big-time arm as well and will throw in a scrimmage next week.

Transfers to watch on the mound include Vanderbilt right-hander Austin Becker and junior-college transfer Jakob Brustoski. Becker didn’t get a lot of innings for the Commodores last season — four to be exact — but is a premium arm with a fastball in the 92-95 mph range. Meanwhile, Brustoski is somewhat of a project, but if he can click for the Red Raiders it could be a truly special weapon. Brustoski is a 6-foot-2, 237-pound, left-hander who was up to 97-98 mph with his fastball at the junior college level. Tadlock said the power arm is there, and so are the makings of being a special arm.

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