2003 Season Preview|
There is a calming factor that radiates among the returning players, coaches and especially the fans of the Texas Tech baseball program. Probation is over.
After four years of NCAA imposed probation on the entire Texas Tech Athletics Department, the Tech baseball program will have its full allotment of scholarships back after playing with three less than its competition since 1999. For most programs that suffer scholarship reductions due to NCAA penalties, the probation period is not a pleasant time. Texas Tech, however, did not miss a beat during the probation period as the Red Raiders advanced to the NCAA Tournament all four seasons and never finished lower than fifth in the Big 12 regular-season including two second-place finishes the last two years.
The Texas Tech Red Raiders enter the 2003 baseball season in a "reloading" mode as head coach Larry Hays looks to continue the success that Tech has come to enjoy over the last eight seasons and permanently erase the stigma that was placed on his teams over the last four seasons.
Hays, currently the fifth winningest active coach in the nation, has been in this reloading position before and his Red Raiders have always responded. In 2001, Hays had only one returning position starter yet he led that team to a second-place finish in the Big 12 and a runner-up spot behind Cal-State Fullerton in the NCAA Regionals. This year mirrors 2001 in that Texas Tech will have to replace its entire starting infield due to graduation but unlike 2001 the Red Raiders return two starters in the outfield and all three starting pitchers that will help give the team some needed experience.
The fall baseball season was one of the most competitve off-seasons in recent history as all positions were considered up for grabs making the competition very intense. The intense competition was exactly what Hays wanted.
"We told our players at the beginning of fall practice that we are going to have a new attitude," said Hays who is now in his 17th season at the helm of the Red Raiders. "Before the department was put on probation, we really had things going on our end but three less scholarships every year for four years really hurts. Our goal was just to maintain our program and try to be in the NCAA's at the end of the year. That time is over. With our scholarships back we want to be in the race to win the Big 12 and make it to Omaha. I told our players that no spots are guaranteed to anyone and we will play the guys who show us the most intensity and desire to win. I was really pleased with the competition that came out of fall practice and I think the intensity that ensued will help us this spring."
In the middle infield, there are five players who made their cases for starting jobs but the Red Raiders will have to work hard to replace last year's First-Team All-Big 12 shortstop Gera Alvarez. Christian Colonel (American Falls, Idaho/Southern Idaho), a ninth-round pick in the 2003 MLB Draft, is one of Tech's top infield recruits and can figure in at second, shortstop and possibly third base. Colonel was an All-Conference selection both years at the College of Southern Idaho and hit .390 his last season there along with nine home runs. T.J. Bruce (Bellflower, Calif./Corritos C.C.) and Josh Haney (Midland, Texas/Midland College) both had excellent fall practices and freshman Ryan Riddle (Midland, Texas/Midland) had a successful transition from the high school ranks to the Div. I level. Doug Beck also figures into the mix with this group but most likely at the second base slot.
At third base, junior college transfer Clint McGill (Chowchilla, Calif./Fresno City College) had an impressive fall outing and came out of camp as Tech's best candidate for the position. McGill was a First-Team All-Conference pick last season and earned First-Team Northern California honors after posting a .368 batting average and 15 doubles at Fresno City College.
Behind the plate, Texas Tech will get its first-ever all brother battery as Cooper Fouts (Las Vegas, Nev./C.C of Southern Nevada) is the leading candidate to replace last year's Second-Team All Big 12 catcher Willie Durazo. Fouts, the younger brother of starting pitcher Nathan Fouts, comes to Texas Tech after one season of junior college at the Community College of Southern Nevada. Fouts, who played in a wood bat league last year, showed good hitting in the fall and excellent defense and should anchor the catching duties for most of the season. Fouts will be backed up by sophomore Madison Edwards (Midland, Texas/Midland) who made a few brief appearances behind the plate last season in backup of Durazo.
"I really feel like we have a lot of great players in the infield who can hit the ball and play great defense," said Hays. "We have always put our best defense on the field first and let hitting take care of itself. I feel like this group of guys will step up to the challenge and make a big impact."
ON THE MOUND
Joining these three players on the mound will be a talented group of pitchers who can either take over starting jobs or provide long relief out of the bullpen. Freshman Randy Gattis (Mesquite, Texas/Mesquite), a 39th-round pick in the MLB Draft this summer, had a good fall along with juniors Jeff Karstens (Spring Valley, Calif./Grossmont J.C.), Aaron Albus (Baytown, Texas/Ranger J.C.), Chris Hansen (Las Vegas, Nev./C.C. of Southern Nevada) and Andrew Martin (San Diego, Calif./Grossmont J.C.).
The biggest key for new pitching coach Brian Strickland will be to find someone to replace last year's First-Team All-Big 12 closer Steve Rowe. Rowe went 10-2 last season with eight saves and a 1.51 ERA so replacing him will be a difficult task. Aaron Jones (Torrance, Calif./El Camino J.C.) and Chris Hansen showed signs of taking over the closer duties during fall practice but the position is still wide open.
After finishing in second-place in the Big 12 the previous two seasons, this year's group of players are ready to take the next step and bring back the Big 12 Championship to Dan Law Field. With a solid group of returning players and a talented group of newcomers, the Red Raiders just may get their wish.