With all the pressures of the moment, the significance of the weekend and Oklahoma State’s first home regional since 2008, the Cowboys advanced to their first Super Regional in seven years on the back — or rather arms — of some blossoming ball players.
In Sunday’s regional clinching victory, OSU called upon a freshman pitcher — as they had throughout the weekend — to right the ship after some early waves en route to an 6-4 come-from-behind win over Cal State Fullerton.
With junior starter Tyler Nurdin failing to escape the first inning, giving up three runs before being pulled with two outs, Oklahoma State turned to Trey Cobb with the bases loaded to tame the Titans. Which he did in the first, and gave the Cowboys five more innings with giving up just an unearned run.
“The professionals want winners, guys who know how to compete and execute pitches in key spots, execute pitches when guys are in scoring position,” OSU pitching coach Rob Walton said. “That’s one of the biggest things, is can you make the pitch that gets the out to get you out of the inning. That’s a sign of growth.”
And Walton and the Cowboys have seen that growth from most of its freshmen pitchers — who were highly regarded as the gems of the No. 4 recruiting class in Josh Holliday’s first class at his alma mater.
While any freshman in any sport has a learning curve at the college ranks, the pitcher may face one of the biggest challenges — which perhaps makes the final numbers for OSU’s freshmen pitchers in the Stillwater Regional even more impressive. The Cowboys got 13 innings of work from first-year college pitchers with 12 strikeouts registered and no earned runs given up.
“The execution is at a higher level than in high school, they’re not going to be able to just throw 90 past somebody. The value to movement, to location, the pressures become a big deal,” Walton said. “You can’t control anything else — the guy swinging the bat, he can’t control the umpire. He can’t control anything but the pitch he’s getting ready to execute. If they just focus on that, the execution usually goes up.”
Cobb’s performance came two days after another freshman pitcher, Tyler Buffett, was called upon to start the Stillwater Regional opener against Binghamton — with the Albuquerque, N.M., native going 4 2/3 innings with no runs allowed while giving up six hits and striking out six.
It was Buffett’s 10th start of the season — third-most on the team behind Friday starter Jon Perrin, and Nurdin — and saw his ERA dip to 2.95 in the 55 innings pitched in his first year in Stillwater.
In both games that had freshmen go more than five innings early in the contest, another couple of freshmen pitchers were called upon to close the gap to the end of the game.
Blake Battenfield, a Claremore native, saw work in both games and gave OSU an inning of work in each, facing a total of seven batters — the only batter reaching on a swinging strikeout in the dirt during the Binghamton contest — and struck out three. Battenfield was called in during the Cal State Fullerton game, in which he earned the win, after freshman Garrett Williams hit the only batter he faced to keep OSU’s deficit at one before closer Brendan McCurry came in to close out the last two innings.
“Battenfield picked up on it all quite early and has pitched really good the whole way out,” Walton said. “I think, in my mind, has really only had one bad outing. The rest have been pretty solid.”
Behind the play of those freshmen pitchers — alongside the maturity to rally from the experienced players — has Oklahoma State headed to a Super Regional in Holliday’s second year back in Stillwater, but potentially not its last.
“I think all of those freshmen have the potential to be special for us,” said Walton, whose club will host UC-Irvine in Super Regional play at home in Stillwater. “But if you’re not patient with them, then they don’t have a chance to grow. I think that’s the whole key, is to be patient, give them support while being tough and continue to educate them on what makes a pitcher and not a guy who just goes out to the mound and throws the ball.”
NCAA Super Regional
Oklahoma State vs. UC-Irvine
At Allie P. Reynolds Stadium (Stillwater)
Friday: UC Irvine (38-23) at Oklahoma State (48-16), 9:30 p.m.
Saturday: UC Irvine vs. Oklahoma State, 2 p.m.
x-Sunday: UC Irvine vs. Oklahoma State, 2 p.m.
(Best-of-3; x-if necessary; host school is Game 1 home team; visiting school is Game 2 home team; coin flip determines Game 3 home team)