Even a full season of pitching in front of sold-out Big 12 Conference ballparks couldn’t totally prepare Hunter Dobbins for that trot from the bullpen at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
The former all-state baseball player from Rudder stepped into the brightest lights of his young career at Texas Tech with an outing at the College World Series.
Dobbins entered the Red Raiders’ elimination game against Michigan on June 21 in the fourth inning trailing 6-3. When he left the game with one out in the sixth, the Wolverines had stretched the lead to 7-3, and Michigan went on to win 15-3.
Though the loss stung, Dobbins was a bit of a bright spot in that game for Tech. The freshman had the longest outing of any Red Raider pitcher at 2 1/3 innings, and two of the three earned runs he allowed crossed the plate after he left the game. He struck out three, walked two and allowed two hits.
Dobbins also was the only Tech pitcher to pitch a scoreless inning that game, setting down Michigan in order in the fifth.
“It was definitely the experience of a lifetime,” Dobbins said. “Coming out of the bullpen with that huge crowd all around you, 30,000 people around you, gets you going pretty well. To be on that stage and get your name called and get to pitch, it’s something to remember for the rest of my life.”
Dobbins could make plenty more memories in Omaha.
The Red Raiders have made the CWS in four of the last six seasons, and Dobbins had a role in getting them there this year. As a freshman, he posted a 4.44 ERA in 26 1/3 innings, mostly out of the bullpen as he quickly adjusted to the college level. He had a 4.91 ERA in March, then 3.55 in April and 3.68 in May. Against Big 12 opponents, he had a 3.53 ERA in 10 1/3 innings in appearances against West Virginia, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor.
Dobbins’ strikeout rate also rose over the first three months starting at 7.36 strikeouts per nine innings in March and reaching 8.59 in May.
His best outing of the season came in his only start, a 2-0 loss to West Virginia in a Big 12 tournament elimination game. He pitched six innings, allowing two earned runs while striking out five.
“Through the first half of the year, I only had like four innings,” Dobbins said. “Once my name was called, I jumped at my opportunity, and I was able to start getting in there consistently.
“Your first time out freshman year, you’re a little nervous, a little shaky. You want to prove to yourself you can pitch at this level, and once you start having success, your confidence goes up. You can walk out there on the mound, and you’re ready to go because you know you belong there.”
Much of that increased confidence mirrored the rise of his change-up. Dobbins seldom threw it in high school, but Tech coaches worked with him to change his grip from a split-finger style to a more traditional circle change-up. It gave him a dependable third pitch to go with a low-90s mph fastball and slider, and he’s continued to work on it since.
That work continues during his time with the Texas Collegiate League’s Brazos Valley Bombers, where he was reunited with his high school coach, Chase Sanford, an assistant with the Bombers.
Dobbins pitches and plays the field for Brazos Valley. He immediately stepped in as one of the Bombers’ top pitchers, and he’s been getting back in the swing of things at the plate. In the past week, he just missed an inside-the-park home run while notching a pair of hits in a 4-0 win over Baton Rouge and sent a walk-off single into center field in an 8-7 win over Acadiana.
Dobbins said his coaches see him as a two-way player in college, but consensus All-American Josh Jung started at third base for Tech, keeping Dobbins in the bullpen as a freshman. With Jung now playing in the Texas Rangers’ organization, Dobbins has the opportunity to earn more at-bats while continuing his role in the bullpen. Sanford said Dobbins has what it takes to earn a spot in the Red Raiders’ weekend starting rotation.
“He would really love to play both ways,” Sanford said. “With his work ethic and his talent, I think he can continue to climb, and that’s what I would like to see. His relentless pursuit of perfection is what sets him apart. He’ll do what it takes to be great on an everyday basis.”
Dobbins will return to Tech in early August to begin preparations for his sophomore season. Whatever role he claims for the 2020 Red Raiders, the process will start with fall practices, which he said he is much more prepared for in Year 2.
“In the fall, you’re competing with the best of the best trying to fight for roles,” Dobbins said. “You can’t let it affect your play on the field. You’ve got to do what you can do on the field and keep rolling. Hopefully they see that and know that they can use me in the spring.”