From a mid-April stretch when they won 10 games in a row, navigating road hazards at Florida State and Oklahoma State, there was no better baseball team in the Big 12 Conference than Texas Tech.
There was no better hitter than Tech first baseman Eric Gutierrez.
And there was no better Friday night starter in the conference than the Red Raiders’ Davis Martin.
But college baseball’s long and winding road to Omaha can detour even the most accomplished of teams.
Coastal Carolina ended Tech's winningest conference season ever Thursday night with a 7-5 victory, moving the Chanticleers into a Friday showdown with unbeaten TCU.
The road to the College World Series finals claimed the Red Raiders, just as it did the bluebloods that the Southeastern Conference sent to the tournament this season. Just two games into this College World Series, the Florida Gators — like all six other SEC teams in the NCAA field — were gone.
No more SEC teams. No more Atlantic Coast Conference teams.
Maybe it was their three months of head-to-head league play that declawed the Gators and Tigers of the SEC.
Or maybe, instead, the college baseball universe is ruled by the simple adage that TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle likes to repeat:
“The best team doesn’t always win here. It’s the team that is playing the best.”
By the time the Red Raiders reached the NCAA bracket, their blanket of invincibility had been punctured. They weren’t playing their best.
Tech had to bounce back from defeats both in the regional (Dallas Baptist) and the Super Regional (East Carolina).
And once in Omaha, last Sunday’s 5-3 loss to TCU relegated the Red Raiders to the losers bracket, where throats clench and pitching plans tend to go awry.
“We fundamentally were not real good today,” Tech coach Tim Tadlock said after Thursday's elimination defeat. “That's probably as many extra bases as we've given up the whole year. I'm kind of in a little bit of a shock over some of that stuff, because we hadn't really done that in a long time. It's kind of uncharacteristic of our team.”
Coastal Carolina faces the daunting task of defeating a rested TCU team not once, but twice in order to reach the College World Series finals.
Heading into Thursday the Chanticleers’ plans seemed clear. Beat Tech, and crafty, side-arming Andrew Beckwith with a 13-1 record likely would be pitching against the Horned Frogs.
But first Coastal had to navigate Texas Tech’s tough lineup. And instead of the tight pitching duels that the national spotlight and TD Ameritrade Park both invite, the bullpen phones quickly began to ring off the walls.
Neither team’s starter was able to finish the third inning. By the end of the night, seven pitchers had seen the mound.
It was just what TCU could have asked for.
“We walked too many guys and did some things, whatever, but we found a way to win -- that's all that matters,” Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore said. “What we've talked about is living for tomorrow. So we'll get a chance to play tomorrow, play a great team again.
“I just want to say how happy I am for my guys. They didn't want today to be their last day to play.”
For Tech, it was hardly the finish that they had been hoping for, considering the way much of the season had gone. Tadlock guided the Red Raiders to their second trip to Omaha in four seasons.
He had the pitching. He had the balanced lineup. He had the seniors — a rarity in the MLB Draft era.
“It's been a lot of fun to coach them,” Tadlock said with emotion in his voice. “It's a lot of fun going to the ballpark every day. These guys work at it. They show up. They've been good. They've been good in all phases. They've been good in the classroom. Guys have represented Texas Tech the right way. And they've played the game the right way.
“Today just wasn't in the cards.”
The road to the Omaha finals, Tadlock was saying, is filled with potholes and funny bounces. Both of Coastal Carolina’s three-run innings Thursday were helped along by Tech errors and untimely hops.
Uncharacteristic, Tadlock called it. He was thinking of the Tech team he had watched all season.
And with good reason. No one in the Big 12 was playing better than the Texas Tech Red Raiders in April and early May.
But timing is everything in the race to the College World Series finals.
Another good team learned that Thursday night.