Notre Dame baseball: Texas Tech offers several challenges as NCAA tournament opens
June is the best time of the year. The time when everything that unfolded in the winter of February and March and often April no longer matters for 64 teams who’ve done enough and won enough to earn NCAA tournament invitations.
The road to Omaha for Notre Dame (35-14) starts in a place where it has never played (Statesboro, Georgia) against an opponent it rarely has (Notre Dame and Texas Tech have met once, in 2004 in Round Rock, Texas).
Getting to its first College World Series since 2002 won’t be easy for the Irish, but it certainly beats the alternative of sitting home and watching.
Here are five facts about Notre Dame’s first opponent, Texas Tech (37-20), heading into Friday’s opening-round game (2 p.m., ACC Network) in the double-elimination regional.
If the Red Raiders’ bats are awake, watch out
Texas Tech likes to hit and run and score. A lot. The Red Raiders rank first in the Big 12 in triples (15), RBI (468) and runs (498). They’re second in slugging percentage (.502), doubles (139), hits (659) and total bases (1,011). They were third in batting average (.294) and home runs (83).
They played a lot of games where they shredded opposing pitching. Texas Tech swept an early series against Merrimack by scores of 17-1, 21-5 and 20-5. It beat Stephen F. Austin 19-1. It had league wins over Baylor, Kansas State and West Virginia by scores of 11-1, 14-0 and 12-2. It beat two teams – Kansas and New Mexico – each by scores of 28-2. Against New Mexico, Texas Tech set a school record by scoring 16 runs – in one inning.
The Red Raiders scored at least 10 runs in 19 games this season. That's a lot.
Texas Tech is 30-11 when hitting at least one home run. It often hits a lot of them with a core starting lineup that features two freshmen, two sophomores, two juniors and three seniors.
It just knows how to stress an opposing pitching staff.
Texas Tech has its own workhorse on the mound
It’s no surprise that ace left-hander John Michael Bertrand, who finished 8-2 with a 2.39 ERA for first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection, gets the ball Friday for the Irish. It won’t be a surprise for Notre Dame to see Brandon Birdsell do the same.
A 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior right-hander from Willis, Texas, Birdsell earned first team all-league honors and was the Big 12 pitcher of the year this season. In 78 innings, he allowed 62 hits and 29 runs while striking out 102 with only 27 walks. Birdsell finished 8-3 with an ERA of 3.00.
He was a 39th round selection by the Houston Astros out of high school, but chose instead to go to San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College. He was an 11th-round selection of the Minnesota Twins last summer, but returned to Texas Tech for a second season.
Now among the top 100 prospects in next month’s annual Major League Baseball draft, Birdsell is the leader of a Texas Tech staff that finished fourth in the league for opponent batting average (.257) and walks (222), third in wins (37) and second in total strikeouts (573) and strikeouts looking (161).
If it’s Bertrand against Birdsell, it might come down to who flinches first.
►There’s always talent in Lubbock
Getting to West Texas seemingly always involves tricky travel of delayed or canceled flight connections, but that’s rarely a problem for pro scouts, who know well the way to Rip Griffin Park, the Red Raiders’ home field.
Under head coach Tim Tadlock, now in his 10th season, the Red Raiders have had 59 players selected in the MLB draft. That includes a school record 11 picks in 2018. Last summer, Texas Tech also set a school record with seven players selected inside the draft's first 10 rounds. In comparison, Notre Dame had a total of two players taken.
Sending guys to the bigs is the rule, not the exception. This season might be more of the same. Leading the conga line into the pros next month might be second baseman Jace Jung, a 6-foot, 215-pound, left-handed hitting sophomore who’s been a cornerstone as the No. 3 hitter in the Red Raider lineup.
Jung was the Big 12 player of the year as a freshman. He’s a semifinalist this season for the annual Golden Spikes award, given to the best amateur player in the country. Jung leads the team in hitting (.340) and is third in overall hits (71). He has 14 home runs and 56 RBI.
Winning way out there is contagious
Not a lot was known about Texas Tech at Notre Dame earlier in the week, where Link Jarrett’s staff was pouring over game film and analytics to formulate a scouting report. This much is — the Red Raiders are one of the game’s most consistent success stories.
They win, and win a lot.
This week marks the seventh time in the last nine years that the Red Raiders are in the NCAA tournament. Under Tadlock, a two-time national coach of the year, the program’s gone to the College World Series four times the last seven years, most recently in 2019. In 16 previous NCAA tournaments, Texas Tech is 44-35. It has won the Big 12 three of the last five seasons and is the only Big 12 team to have finished in the top three of the conference standings every season since 2016.
Texas Tech was ranked in each of the six major Division I polls every week during the regular season and climbed to as high as No. 4 in early April.
Being away from home this week is weird
When the NCAA selection committee announced late Sunday its 16 regional sites, it snapped an unprecedented Texas Tech run of hosting a regional for five straight seasons. No team in the country could say the same. Regionals in Lubbock were an annual event for seemingly forever.
Instead, Texas Tech trekked 1,400 miles to east-central Georgia. The Red Raiders went 16-15 away from home this season – 13-9 in true road games, 3-6 in neutral-site contests. That doesn’t mean Texas Tech doesn’t know how to win big games against big teams at big times.
Over three days in mid-May (13-15), Texas Tech tallied its most impressive season sweep when it beat then-No. 3 Oklahoma State 7-6, 9-3 and 8-4 in Stillwater.
Texas Tech lost four of six to end the regular season, but there’s some strong DNA success in that program. It often finds ways to win.
It’s up to Notre Dame on Friday to say otherwise.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
NCAA TOURNAMENT REGIONAL
Statesboro (Ga.) Regional
2 p.m.: No. 2 seed Notre Dame (35-14) vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (37-20), ACCN
7: No. 1 Georgia Southern (40-18) vs. No. 4 UNC Greensboro (34-28), ESPN+
1 p.m.: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser
7: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner
2 p.m.: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser
7: Game 5 winner vs. Game 4 winner
6 p.m.: Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser