2007 Baseball Preview: Part Two - The Infield

First-Team All-Big 12 catcher Matt Smith returns to lead Tech behind the plate in 2007.

First-Team All-Big 12 catcher Matt Smith returns to lead Tech behind the plate in 2007.

Jan. 27, 2007

By Trey Shipman, Texas Tech Media Relations

With snow and ice still lingering in some areas from the winter storms which made their way through West Texas the last few weeks, Lubbockites can only assume one thing ¬- must be baseball season.

Longtime Texas Tech baseball coach Larry Hays and crew have become accustomed to the not-so-ideal weather conditions that seem to hit the Hub City on cue every year when his squad begins its spring workouts in mid-January. This season has proven to be no different and once again Hays has his team rolling with the punches and doing what it takes to be prepared for the grind of the season. With 17 returning letter-winners including 6 starters and the core of its pitching staff still intact, Tech has reason to be optimistic about 2007.

This is the second in a three-part series previewing the Red Raiders infield, outfield and pitching staff, giving Tech followers a better idea of just what to expect when the gates of Dan Law Field open for business in 2007. The sunflower seeds are flying and the grass (and turf) shone a bright green, dust off the bleachers ladies and gentlemen - it's baseball season in Raiderland.

The great Lou Gerhig once referred to catching equipment as "the tools of ignorance." When asked to explain his terminology, Gerhig replied "because you have to be an idiot to play that position." The late Yankee great wasn't referring to an individual's actual mental capacity but instead the desire to take the beating that comes along squatting behind the plate.

The Red Raiders' field general knows all to well what Gerhig was talking about as in 2006 Matt Smith had his season cut short when he suffered an MCL injury to his left knee in a collision at the plate against Kansas State. Smith would go on to finish the year as Tech's designated hitter as well claim the top spot on the team in average (.377) and doubles (16), but his absence on the field did not go unnoticed.

Fortunately for the Red Raiders the First Team All-Conference honoree is back to 100 percent and ready to pick up where he left off in '06, as well as anchor an infield that could prove to be one of Tech's greatest assets.

"The knee is 100 percent, it doesn't affect me much at all," Smith said. "It really feels like nothing ever happened to it. I'm just coming back in and getting back into that role I was last year. In a way it's a brand new team, so my goal is just getting back to that state."

Smith leads a group of infielders that includes the '06 starting shortstop in senior Kyle Martin and sophomore first baseman James Leverton. Also returning is sophomore second baseman Willie Rueda, however Rueda is being viewed as a possible candidate to fill the void in centerfield after the departure of Brian Capps.

Hays said with so many familiar faces back in the mix, it goes a long way to putting his mind at ease. "With Leverton and Martin and Smith and Willie back, that gives us a pretty good idea of where we're going to be so there's a little comfort zone there," he said.

One of the positives of having a bit of uncertainty at both second and third base, is that it brings forth a competitive atmosphere for the players vying for the coveted spots in the lineup. At second, Hays said the competition will likely be between fellow freshmen Chris Hall and Joey Kenworthy, that is, if Rueda does make the move to center.

The most closely contested position contest, Hays said, will likely come from the hot corner. Two transfers, in Ben Baker of Dallas and California native Doug Thennis, will be vying to replace the spot previously held by All-Conference performer and four-year starter Joey Callender.

"We have a couple of transfers that are going to battle there," Hays said. "Baker has the edge, he had a real good fall, but Thennis has come in and looks like a real good player but just hasn't got going yet. It'd really be nice if one of them stepped up. We've got some options."

Of those options, the Red Raiders are hoping the mix of old and new will come together to form a unit that is a constant concern for opponents.

"The teams really starting to gel, we've got a lot of talent," Smith said. "It's gonna be an awesome bunch and it's going to be a lot of fun playing with these guys this year."




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