Baseball: 2007 Season Preview

Senior shortstop Kyle Martin

Senior shortstop Kyle Martin

Jan. 28, 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.

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 Pitching Staff
The strategy for piecing together a pitching staff is similar to that of playing a good game of Twister - you can never have too many arms. Hays and pitching coach Lance Brown should have plenty of options when it comes time to solidify the rotation. Returning from last season is staff ace Miles Morgan, Colt Hynes and A.J. Ramos, the three of which got the bulk of the starts for the Raiders in 2006. The trio combined for 13 wins and over 226 innings pitched, giving the coaches an experienced core to anchor the staff.

Hays did admit that the inclement weather has had the greatest impact on the preparation of his pitchers and that consistent performance from his returning veterans will certainly be key.

"The one thing the weather has killed us on is our pitching. We don't have lined up whose going to do what, this that and the other," he said. "We need Morgan, Ramos and Hynes and the other guys to pitch like they've been here a year and got that experience."

While the overall returning talent level is promising, the Red Raiders also have the luxury of the 2006 Big 12 Freshman Pitcher of the Year in Morgan at their disposal. The Big 12 Coaches voted to award the Coronado High graduate with the honor after he flashed signs of brilliance throughout the season including a 15 strikeout, complete game gem, en route to a win over the Texas Longhorns on March 18th.

Morgan said the first step to building on last season, as is often the key in baseball, is having a short memory.

"(I've) just got to forget about it, it was last year," he said. "A week from Friday we've got a fresh start and you're only as good as you're next start; hopefully it'll be a lot better season."

Morgan also expressed a confidence in his teammates, something that seems to be a common theme throughout the clubhouse for 2007.

"I think we've got a lot of guys that can throw strikes and really compete and have a lot more confidence out on the mound. We have a lot of new guys that I think will be able to really contribute for us when conference comes."

Two of the new teammates Morgan referred to likely include junior college transfers Josh Scofield and Trey Schurr. The duo of lefties both have enjoyed success before making the leap to Division-I and are likely to push the returning Tech hurlers for a spot in the rotation as the skipper himself admitted.

"Scofield and Schurr have really put themselves in the mix," Hays said. But (because of the weather) we're just not where we want to be right now. We'll just see how it goes."

Others likely to figure in the mix are senior Aaron Odom and sophomores Brian Cloud and Cory Large, all of which saw limited action last season but have the potential to make an impact for the Red Raiders in the near future.

Regardless of how things shake out, according to Hynes, whoever takes the hill for Tech this season, their mind will be in the right place.

"We want to go to regionals, super regionals and then Omaha but you've got to take it one step at a time. Right now we're just trying to prepare everybody to succeed in conference then go from there," he said. "We've got a lot of guys that could start at any other program but they're here and working together and everyone knows their role and is ready to do what it takes to win."

The Infield
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.

The Outfield
The outfield could pose the biggest question mark for the Red Raiders as they embark upon 2007. However, one thing is certain - right field, it's on lock down. Remember the name Roger Kieschnick. The 6-foot-3 inch Kieschnich could be the best prospect to come through Lubbock since the likes of current San Diego Padres catcher Josh Bard.

Kieschnick tortured any and every opposing pitcher he faced last season as a true freshman en route to earning Big 12 Freshman of the Year Honors. The power-hittting Rockwall native will look to build on a season in which he hit .359 with nine home runs and 15 RBI, and lead what will likely be two new faces helping him patrol the allies in spacious Dan Law Field.

While towering in stature, the soft spoken and humble Kieschnick who was also named Third Team Preseason All-American by Baseball America, likes to keep things simple when it comes to his performance on the field. "You just go out there everyday and try to find a way to help your team win, that's all you can do," he said. "It's all about wins and loses." To make sure that the Red Raiders wins do in fact outnumber the losses, two others will need to step up to team with Kieschnick.

Hays has said that left and centerfield aren't nearly settled, though the situation in center is slightly more clear. Coming back from '06 are sophomores Drew Evans and Willie Rueda. Evans saw limited playing time filling in for Brian Capps last season, while Rueda's above average speed and slick fielding ability have tempted the Tech coaching staff to at the very least give him a serious look. Though he spent last season as the Red Raiders regular second baseman so whether or not he can the transition from the infield is still to be determined.

Also in the mix will be highly touted freshman Taylor Ashby from Lubbock's Monterey High School, however a nagging back injury has limited him in showing his true abilities.

"We like what we've got but they've got to play," Hays said. "We'll know about conference time what kind of players we've got. We've got some good young players, but they need to play. We've got the advantage of some experience coming back and that's huge to have but they've got to do it. Just because they're there doesn't mean they're going to do it."

As for left, Hays referred to the competition as being wide open with numerous players likely to get a shot. However, the leading candidate might very well be junior college transfer Geoff Byrnes. Byrnes spent two seasons at Chabot College in Concord, Calif., and in 2006 hit 17 home runs, knocked in 72 RBI as well as scoring 65 runs en route to being named the All-Coast Conference and NORCAL Player of the year.

A lack of talent doesn't appear to be a problem for the Tech outfielders and with Kieschnick leading the way the end result is promising.

"I think we've got a lot of depth, a lot of speed, a lot bats, a lot of arms," Kieschnick said, "so whatever the coaches decide to put out there, a lot of good players on the bench but everyone is gonna get their shot."




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