By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
Innings, games, seasons can pivot and change at any time and by any method. Identifying the change agent sometimes is easy and evident, other times mysterious.
The latter probably best explains Oklahoma. The Sooners head into the Blacksburg Regional in the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship having regained the mojo and momentum it had lost.
A month ago, Oklahoma appeared destined to fulfill the prediction that it would win the regular-season title. Then came a team-wide hitting slump and No. 2 starter Dillon Overton was sidelined for two weeks with elbow problems. The Sooners entered the Phillips 66 Big 12 Baseball Championship having lost nine of their last 12.
But OU went 4-0 at Bricktown Ballpark, allowing just eight runs in 38 innings, to win the school’s first conference title in baseball since 1997.
“A lot of teams go through bad spells just like we did,” Overton said. “It's gonna happen no matter what. ... Right now, we kinda turned it on at the exact right time and we're fortunate for that.”
With Overton nearly 100 percent and ace Johnathan Gray, the Sooners have one of the best one-two pitching combos in the nation. While host Virginia Tech is the No. 1 seed, few would be surprised to see Oklahoma advance to the super regionals.
During their slump, Oklahoma lost Big 12 road series against Kansas State, West Virginia and Baylor. Winning away from home will be another obstacle to overcome.
“No doubt. Like I said before, it’s a new start,” second baseman Hector Lorenzana said. “We have some fans coming out. We know we’ll be away and we have to be stronger mentally, but we’ve gotten stronger as a team.”
The No. 2 seed Sooners will face Coastal Carolina in its opener while Virginia Tech will face No. 4 seed Connecticut.
Coastal Carolina is one of only 11 programs - along with Florida State, Miami, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Rice and Cal-State Fullerton - to reach an NCAA Tournament regional in each of the last seven years.
The Chanticleers - All World Nickname, for sure - also played a nonconference schedule that included 11 teams that made the 64-team bracket. They went 8-10 against those teams, including a victory over Big 12 regular-season champion Kansas State.
“It’s gonna be tough in there with all their (Virginia Tech’s) fans and everything, but we’ve just gotta keep playing ball, take it one pitch at a time,” OU senior shortstop Jack Mayfield said. “Coach (Galloway’s) talked about playing one pitch ahead, so that’s how we’re gonna play, and not let the game get too fast. Especially with these young guys. They might let it overlook them, so we’ve gotta slow it down, just keep having fun.
“At the Big 12 Tournament all these guys were yelling, having fun, backing each other up, so that’s what we’re gonna keep doing.”
Blacksburg Regional hosted by Virginia Tech
Friday’s schedule (All times Central)
No. 1 Virginia Tech (38-20) vs. No. 4 Connecticut (34-26), 4:30 p.m., ESPN3
No. 2 Oklahoma (40-19) vs. No. 3 Coastal Carolina (37-21), Noon, ESPN3
Oklahoma update: The Sooners have two of the best starters in the country in juniors Johnathan Gray and lefty Dillon Overton. Gray (9-2, 1.55 ERA, 127 strikeouts in 110 innings) could be the No. 1 pick in the pro baseball draft. His fastball reaches the mid-90s and he has a nasty slider. Overton (9-2, 2.89 ERA) missed two series in May with arm issues but appears to be healthy. Ralph Garza, Jake Fisher and Kyle Hayes add pitching depth. As a team, the Sooners are hitting .283 but in winning the Phillips 66 Big 12 Baseball Championship they showed signs of shaking the slump that knocked them out of first place during the regular season. First baseman Matt Oberste is capable of carrying the team if he gets hot. Last year he hit .467 to lead the Sooners to the super regional. He’s hitting .382 with 18 doubles, 10 homers and 54 RBIs. Freshman outfielder Craig Aikin gets things rolling from his leadoff spot while Max White, Jack Mayfield, Hector Lorenzana and Anthony Hermelyn are also solid at the plate. The Sooners have made the NCAA Tournament seven times in eight seasons, advancing to the super regionals on three occasions and the 2010 College World Series.
Virginia Tech at a glance: The Hokies’ pitching has been solid over the past few weeks. Senior left hander Joe Mantiply tops the staff with a 2.92 ERA in 71 innings. Right handers Brad Markey and Devin Burke also are solid starters while reliever Clark Labitan has an unorthodox motion that produces outstanding results – 10 saves, 2.83 ERA. Virginia Tech has a powerful lineup featuring Tyler Horan (.349 average, 11 homers, 50 RBIs, Mark Zagunis (nine homers, 48 RBIs), Chad Pinder (.327, 13 doubles, seven homers, 48 RBIs) and Andrew Rash (.312, nine homers, 57 RBIs.
Coastal Carolina at a glance: The Chanticleers have been known for power-packed lineups but this year’s team is hitting just .271 and is relying on a pitching staff that as compiled an impressive. 3.16 ERA. Outfielder Jacob May keys the offense. He’s hitting .321 with 11 doubles, six homers, 29 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. Starting pitchers Ben Smith and Tyler Poole lead the staff. Smith has a 2.19 ERA in 86.1 innings of work, along with 78 strikeouts. Poole has a 3.86 ERA in 58.1 innings, along with 40 strikeouts. The bullpen is stout as stopper Ryan Connolly. In 30 appearances, he has a 2.10 ERA with 11 saves in 77 innings.
Connecticut at a glance: The Huskies have one of the nation’s top hitters in LJ Mazzilli (son of former major-leaguer Lee Mazzilli), who leads the team with a .364 average. He has 16 doubles, four triples, six homers and 49 RBIs. Vinny Siena is the team’s next-best hitter with a .302 average and 33 RBIs. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Carson Cross has had an outstanding season. He has a 2.50 ERA in 104.1 innings, along with 83 strikeouts while allowing just 21 walks. Starter Anthony Marzi has a 3.87 ERA in 93 innings. Bullpen-wise, Pat Butler (2.23, 22 appearances), David Mahoney (2.53, 32 appearances) and Dan Feehan (3.62, 23 appearances) lead a deep and effective bullpen.