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Kendall Rogers | | January 22, 2021

Led by Dylan Neuse, Texas Tech baseball seeks another College World Series berth

All you need to know about the 2021 college baseball season

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Texas Tech had what you could call a fall to remember, or forget, depending on who you ask.

As the Red Raiders began preparations for the 2021 campaign, they, like everyone else, had some obstacles to overcome, whether it was injuries, COVID-19 cases or ensuing contact tracing protocols that knocked players out for a couple of weeks.

Their situation got rather interesting at one point this fall. With a limited number of players available to hit and play in the field at once, the Red Raiders had to summon some familiar faces — head coach Tim Tadlock’s son, Ben, and some members of the coaching staff — to play in the field. Tadlock admitted that it was a little weird to have to do at the time, but it also was the perfect sign of the times.

There’s no doubt that Tadlock learned some things about his team this fall. He got to focus on a few guys in particular throughout the fall with a constant, depleted, roster, while also getting a unique opportunity to use guys at various positions.

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Was the fall challenging for Tadlock’s Red Raiders? Absolutely. But most importantly, they learned a lot about a squad that looks to make a return trip to the College World Series.

“Overall, we feel like we had a pretty good, but little different, fall,” Tadlock said. “We finished up the fall with 15 guys swinging the bat, and there were many days throughout where my son or coaches had to go out there and play defense for us. Some different guys got a lot of at bats this fall, so that’s the good part. But with all the ups and downs of the fall, things are still going to be a little interesting for us.”

This won’t come as a shock to anyone, but the Red Raiders have the look of another team that will fight for a trip to Omaha.

From a pitching standpoint, the Red Raiders have a plethora of depth, and they return some seasoned arms who have significant starting experience. Micah Dallas, who finished last season as a stud reliever, could return to the weekend rotation again in the spring, left-hander Mason Montgomery has a load of upside, right-hander Hunter Dobbins has a chance to be this year’s Bryce Bonnin, young righty Andrew Devine has a premium arm and had a strong fall and hard-throwing Ryan Sublette will likely be one of the nation’s premier relievers in the spring, but he, too, could get into the starting mix.

Those are all high-level, impressive arms … but that’s also just the tip of the iceberg for Tadlock’s club. They have several more terrific arms to watch.

“We’ve seen those guys (above) plenty, and they each had different kinds of falls,” he said. “We know those guys really well, and I’d say this — if we wanted to trot any of them out there to start a game for us once a week, we’d believe in them. That’s the cool thing about this group of arms.

“We have a lot of good arms on this team, and we’re in a situation where you could just go out there and draw out 8-10 arms out of hat, and feel pretty good about where you are,” he added. “We have a strong group of arms that will go out there and command the ball, and they all have mound presence as well. This isn’t a group that we’re going to roll guys out there and just hope that they’ll do well. They’ll do well.”

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The Red Raiders also feel good about the nucleus they have from an offensive standpoint.

Tech will have the tough chore of replacing leader and consistent producer Brian Klein, but with an opening and departure breeds a new opportunity. The Red Raiders have plenty of options for that second base position with the return of Cal Conley, Kurt Wilson and Jace Jung, among others.

It’s also easy to be sky high on Tech’s outfield with the return of speedsters Max Marusak and Dru Baker, along with do-it-all player Dylan Neuse.

“The one question that we didn’t really get answered in the fall was what is our best lineup when we plug different guys in there. So, that is going to be interesting to see in the spring,” he said. “Looking ahead to the spring, it’s going to be important to get some guys at bats early in the spring and let them play a little bit to get a feel for a lineup. We’re kind of excited about that part of it.”

Let’s dive into the Red Raiders this fall:

After starring in Texas Tech’s weekend rotation two seasons ago, right-hander Micah Dallas had a new role in the early part of 2020. He was serving as Tech’s premier reliever out of the pen and doing an amazing job of it with stellar numbers. Dallas struck out 23 and walked just one better in 15.2 innings.

Given his experience as a starter, and his recent domination as a reliever, there’s just one question as fall workouts come to an end. Which role would the Red Raiders prefer him come February?

To be determined, but Tadlock sounds like someone leaning toward moving him back to the usual starter spot.

“With Micah, I’m not sure we’re there just yet in terms of moving him back to the weekend rotation,” he said. “I’m not going to say he’s a starter or reliever at this point, but we’ll get them all back in mid-January and kind of figure things out. I would think he’s going to fit into the rotation, though. I guess we’ll see.”

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The other returning, experienced arms performed well this fall, too.

Hard throwing right-hander Ryan Sublette raised some eyebrows last spring when he sat 95-98 mph with his fastball. And he didn’t deviate from the norm this fall with an explosive fastball up to 97-98, along with a high-quality slider. Veteran left-hander Mason Montgomery arrived in Lubbock with high acclaim, and though he had a 5.14 ERA in 2019, he was on the right track last season with a 3.00 ERA in 18 innings, along with an opponent batting average of .185. Montgomery has always had a premium arm, but he commanded the fastball this fall and made strides with the curveball, slider and changeup as well. Second-year freshman Andrew Devine is an athletic pitcher who has electric stuff and holds runners well, while right-hander Hunter Dobbins has a chance to take a big step forward this spring.

Dobbins, a 6-2, 185-pounder, had a 4.44 ERA in his first season with the Red Raiders, but like many of these arms, took a step forward in his second season with a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings, along with 25 strikeouts and five walks. Dobbins showed electric stuff again this fall, sitting in the 91-94 and up to 95 mph range with his fastball. Earlier this summer at the CSBI Invitational, Dobbins showed that type of heat with a spin rate in the 2000-2200 range, along with a slider and changeup.

“The interesting thing when you talk about weekend starters right now, how many games are going to play on the weekend, and things like that? It’ll be interesting,” Tadlock said. “We’re not real sure how everything is going to sort out in terms of the weekend rotation at this point, but we like our options.”

The Red Raiders also love many of the newcomers they have on the bump.

For starters, the Raiders added a talented graduate transfer in Seton Hill product and left-hander Patrick Monteverde. Monteverde has had a rather interesting career prior to Tech, sitting out in 2019 because of an injury before working just 2.2 innings before the season shutdown in 2020. This fall, though, he’s opened some eyes with a fastball in the 88-91 range and up to 92-93 mph range, along with solid overall stuff.

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Junior college transfer right-handers Brandon Birdsell and Chase Webster are expected to make an immediate impact. Birdsell began his career at Texas A&M and always showed a power arm during his time with the Aggies. He continued that trend during a stint with San Jacinto (TX) College, and this fall, with similar velocity, while Webster did well enough to be considered a key bullpen piece for the ’21 campaign.

Tadlock is especially excited about a talented group of freshmen on this roster, including right-handers Levi Wells, Brendan Girton, Hayde Key and Chase Hampton, along with left-handers Nick Gorby and James Hitt. 

“The simplest thing I can tell you is you could look at a few of those guys, and if the draft was 10 rounds, they might not be here on campus,” Tadlock said. “Some of those guys are low-to-mid 90s with their fastballs, and if they wanted to sign in the top five rounds, some of them probably could have. Many of those guys have what I would consider Major League average stuff on their best days. But what’s important is how can they command their stuff on a given day? That’s the question with young pitchers.”

Hitt is a 6-1, 180-pounder, who attacks hitters from the left side with a quality breaking ball and Key, a 6-foot, 185-pounder, might be the most accomplished young arm on this staff. He’s anywhere from 89-91 mph with his fastball, along with great pitchability. Then, there’s Wells, Hampton, Girton and Gorby — all power arms who have the typical breaking ball and changeup combos. All four are the team’s better younger prospects at the moment.

“The key for these pitchers is going to be working hard during the break,” he said. “The kids went home right before Thanksgiving and they’re not coming back until January 21. It’s going to be pretty important for these guys to stay healthy, play catch, things like that.”

The only bad news for the Red Raiders this fall was not having husky left-hander Jacob Brustoski. Brustoski suffered an injury and will need Tommy John surgery. Therefore, he’ll be out for the 2021 campaign.

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Texas Tech always seems to have a balanced offensive lineup, and that isn’t expected to change in a few months.

As usual, the Red Raiders have versatility around the field and throughout the lineup. They have a nice blend of speed and power and once again should have one of the nation’s more potent offenses with Cal Conley and Dylan Neuse leading the charge.

“One thing we liked about the fall is that we got a lot of different guys some at bats,” Tadlock said. “We have some flexibility with about 12-15 guys, so it’s going to be really interesting to see how the spring unfolds from a lineup standpoint. We didn’t have enough guys playing at once to really trot out every single lineup option, so we still have to figure that out in January.”

One of the more interesting position races is behind the plate with a pair of talented backstops in Braxton Fulford and Nate Rombach. Fulford has gradually gotten better and better with each season of experience, while Rombach jumped on the scene in a big way from an offensive standpoint this past spring. Rombach is more known for his offensive prowess and potential than his defensive skill set, but that aspect of his game has improved.

“Fulford has caught every day for us at times, and he was splitting time last year,” Tadlock said. “We were leaning more toward Fulford full-time when the season shutdown in the spring, but Nate went out and played a lot this past summer and got much better. He didn’t have a great summer numbers wise, but defensively, he did a really nice job. He’s always been able to swing the bat, but he’s also coming on from a defensive standpoint.”

The left side of the infield is in good shape with second-year freshman Jace Jung leading the way. Jung was off to a strong start in the spring and is a strong defender at third.

“Jace had a really good summer out there with the Foresters — I think he hit over .400 and hit double digit home runs. it was pretty impressive,” he said. “He was really swinging the bat well when the season ended, so the fact he went out and produced this summer and came back ready to roll this fall. That’s encouraging.”

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Interestingly enough, Tadlock mentioned that utility player Dylan Neuse could be the best defender on campus at third base. However, the Red Raiders really like him in center field with his speed and athleticism, and penchant for making the big plays.

As for the other outfield positions, speedster Max Marusak and Easton Murrell had strong falls and could be in good shape to nail down starting jobs out there. Marusak has always had big-time potential, and he showed that this fall, while Murrell’s stock is rising after shining this fall. Murrell didn’t play in the spring, so he’s a newer commodity for the Red Raiders. Tadlock feels like Murrell is seasoned enough with the bat to hit in the middle of their lineup in a few months.

“Easton had a really good fall and he’s going to be one of those guys who’s sitting in our lineup each day,” Tadlock said. “As for Marusak, he has a chance to be really good. We certainly know what kind of runner he can be.”

Dru Baker is another interesting piece to watch. Baker, a 5-foot-11, 190-pounder, has an intriguing mix of speed and power, and can play anywhere in the middle infield or outfield. Baker played a lot of second base in the fall but could end up back in the outfield in the spring. Tadlock said he might’ve been the MVP of the fall. Meanwhile, up the middle, Cal Conley and Kurt Wilson are the two main names to watch.

Conley had a strong 2020 campaign before the season closed and could play either shortstop or second base in the spring. Wilson will get a chance at shortstop, too. In essence, it looks like whoever doesn’t win the shortstop job will make the easy shift over to second.

“We will miss a guy like Brian Klein up the middle, but at the same time, we have Kurt Wilson, and he could play shortstop. But for him to play shortstop, that means a guy like Cal Conley has to move to second,” Tadlock said. “We’ve got about four or five guys like that who can create some flexibility for us. You just figure out what’s best for your team in the spring and move on. Then, you have a guy like Baker, who has swung the bat really well.”

Cole Stilwell missed some time during fall workouts and hit a home run in his first at-bat back in action. He’s expected to have another important role in the spring, while Parker Kelly quietly had a good fall, too. He’s been in the Texas Tech program for a few years and appears to be on the path to greatly increasing his role.

The reality of Tech’s situation offensively this spring is that it doesn’t have a ton of available spots for true freshmen. However, Houston (Lamar HS) product Drew Woodcox might be the exception. Woodcox, a 6-foot-1, 195-pounder, is athletic and played third base for much of the fall, while also getting some time in the outfield, where he could earn more playing time in a few months. 

“Drew is really going to push some guys in the spring. I can tell you that much,” Tadlock said. “He has some really good at bats, he controls the zone, and I hate to say a true freshman has huge power potential, but he does. He knows the zone as well as anyone on our team, and he moves on the right pitches. Again, he’s going to push some guys.”

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