Best off-season wishes from our Love Shack to yours

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J.C. Love Field in Ruston
(Photo: Tom Morris)

Thanks to the baseball gods, by some pennies-from-heaven quirk, Louisiana Tech’s Diamond Dogs got to play the final 16 games of its 2021 season in the cozy new J.C. Love Field at Pat Patterson Park, the last 10 in a “Non-Mask-Mandated Free At Last Free At Last Thank God Almighty I’m Free At Last” Zone.

Huge.

True, they were a better team on the road, 16-6 for a .727 winning percentage compared to 25-14/.641 at home. (Tech was 1-0 at a neutral site—vs. Air Force at LSU to open the season—and 42-20 (.677) overall.) They like to call themselves Junkyard Dogs and they’ve earned that, developed a sort of “Us Against the World” mentality since the Ruston Tornado punched them down but not out two springs ago.

Can’t blame ’em.

But goodness, it’s scary to think of what we’d have missed if Tech hadn’t hosted the Conference-USA Tournament and then the NCAA Baseball Championship Ruston Regional. Has Tech Athletics’ storied history ever experienced a more fabulous back-to-back jack?

The Bulldogs were 9-7 in those final 16 games, but it feels like they were more like 12-4; seriously, I had to add it up again. A couple of those were only semi-pretend games with ODU before the tournament started, just to keep the wheels oiled between the regular- and post-seasons.

Maybe it felt like the ‘Dogs won more than nine times because of both the enthusiasm level of fans and players and the unprecedented fact that more people had watched more Tech baseball live in Ruston the past two weeks than in that same amount of time before. Ever. Until last week during the Regional, the amount of times Tech baseball fans have arrived early for the opening of the Ticket Office to be in front of a line that would stretch from there to 30 yards at the corner of Tech Drive and West Alabama is never. Empty set. Egg.

You’re telling me a Tech baseball ticket was going for $164 last week on StubHub? Affirm.
What a beautiful thing.

No matter how you slice it, Louisiana Tech pulled off the CUSA Tournament and the Ruston Regional in a wildly successful way. Sold out crowds. Televised games. Fun teams. Good baseball.

Like getting the stadium built in time – a colossal effort and a blueprint of steady, egoless teamwork – getting the tournament and regional was another illustration of everyone pulling in the same direction, from the University President to the athletics administration and coaches, ticket takers, concessionaires, security … I’ve been contacted by more than one out-of-towner who asked me to pass along thanks and praise – and this just doesn’t always happen at hosted events, and I’ve been to a few.

“Everything was so efficient and seamless,” said Lyn Rollins, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame broadcaster who called a few games during the league tournament. “Not only was everything blue-ribbon top-shelf, but it was the spirit of ‘Yeah, we can do that.’ There wasn’t any ‘maybe’ or ‘I’ll talk to you later,’ it was just all a can-do attitude. Just wonderful. Look, please thank everyone who busted their tails, and that has to be just about everybody I saw.”

Rob McLamb covers Ruston Regional champion NC State and posted a story solely in praise of Tech and Ruston, which included this: “What makes the program are the people, which is the base Louisiana Tech has to build from. When there is such warmth towards others, delight at successful moments, and respect for those who visit, a place like Ruston has strong appeal.”

And of course friends and fans at the games said everything from “Can you believe this?!” to “I never thought I’d see the day.” More than one baseball letterwinner from years ago talked to me with tears in their eyes.

Sports can really be something…

Of course the one group you can’t play the games without is the team, and good for the 2021 Bulldogs. Gosh they were frustratingly fun to watch in that you knew they were going to hit, but because the bullpen couldn’t get enough swings and misses, no lead was safe. The way they enjoyed the game and being together, the common experiences of the past two years that bonded them in a special way, all those things made it impossible not to root for them. The final 16 games, especially the past two weekends, it was almost as if Providence were giving these Junkyard Dogs a reward for their perseverance, two weeks of colors and sights and sounds in a new stadium they got to christen, finally.

Thank you, baseball.

Couple of things from that final game, NC State’s 14-7 win that would send the Wolfpack to Fayetteville to play No. 1 Arkansas this weekend, (one of three SEC teams Tech beat this year in The Love Shack).

+ The State crew from Carolina are some sturdy, healthy boys who don’t appear to miss many meals or skip many weight room dates. The Hogs might want to buckle their chin straps. Who knows?, but the Wolfpack is primed to give them all they want.

+ Tech centerfielder Parker Bates stepped to the plate in the top of the first (Tech was the designated visitor) and you could read his mind: “OK, I’m like what, 1-for-11 or 1-for-12 or something like that in this Regional? I’d better do something about right now since Hunter (Wells) just walked,” and then Boom!, that beautiful left-handed swing and a home run to right-center and Tech led 2-0.

+ Then Bates comes up in the third and again, it’s like a cartoon bubble is above his batting helmet telling you that, “OK. So this is a big game and I’ve got like just maybe two hits this weekend so it might be cool to hit another home run so…” and then SWING and then another two-run homer, this one down the line in right to make it 4-0 and scoring Taylor Young ahead of him because of course Young had walked on a 3-2 pitch which he’s done exactly – hold on a sec, let me count – 57,000 times since his first T-ball game, which is impossible to draw a walk in – unless you’re Taylor Young.

+ Bates only tripled in the fifth, scoring Wells, who’d singled. 5-0 Tech, Bates with 5 RBI.

+ So about that Hunter Wells guy…Tech’s all-time leader in hits in a single season and in a career and in career triples went out in a blaze of titanium or metal or ionized ash or whatever it is in today’s bats: in the Regional, the joyful, switch-hitting, never-had-a-bad-day third baseman for the Bulldogs went 11-for-16 with four doubles, three homers, and one lonely little strikeout. With Tech trailing NC State 13-5 in the seventh in the final game, Wells hit a two-run homer. Trailing 14-7 in the ninth with two out, infield single. Man not giving up. Man locked in. Man meaning business. Shoot, on the Friday morning of the CUSA Tournament, with Tech’s game six hours away, Wells was in the indoor hitting facility, raking all by his lonesome except for country music stud Brad Paisley, keeping him company by singing to a girl about how they needed to get a little mud on the tires. Paisley can make a guitar sing; Wells can do the same thing with a baseball bat. So fun…

Could Tech have won the Regional? Sure. When you get to the Regional round, you figure the 32 teams seeded 1 or 2 have a chance to win the College World Series at odds somewhere between 1-to-5 and 1-to-10, depending on the team. Tech is the same as anyone else: unless you’ve obviously been the best team over the course of the season, you need a non-hero to become a hero, you need a couple of guys to get hot out of the pen if you haven’t had a true closer yet, you need the draw to be on your side. And even if you’re the best, you still need some good baseball favor.

It’s a baseball thing.

Last thing: went walking through The Love Shack for just a few minutes late Monday morning. Had Tech won Sunday, the Regional title game between State and Tech would have been just a couple hours away. Would have been something.

But there was no popcorn popping Monday, no music on the PA, no ticket lines outside. About 2,800 less people in the park than there was the day before. The season was over. And it probably ended as good as it could have. Maybe as it should have.

Tech has a solid baseball history, but since 1993 it’s been tough sledding. In 2016, the Bulldogs got some traction and played in the Starkville Regional. Since, you’ve had a 36-win season, a 39-win season, a 34-win season somersaulted by a tornado, a virus season, and then this memorable 42-win year that included a first-place finish in the C-USA West.

Of course, they didn’t win it until the final few innings of the regular season. Junkyard Dogs Style.

Think about it… Now college baseball is bigger than it’s ever been. Growing. Televised in the regular season. The league tournaments. The Regionals. Things are moving … And Tech has a gorgeous new stadium in an ideal spot, and a town that is beginning to understand the joy of Baseball Fever.

This is true and semi-sad: For Tech in 2021, the bats are racked, the balls bagged up, those beautiful Columbia Blue unis washed and folded. It’s over for now.

But the way 2021 ended gives you get the feeling that it’s just getting started.

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