By JOHN SHINN
Jonathan Gray’s nerve was solidified last June. As Oklahoma prepared to face to South Carolina in the 2012 Super Regional series he went to every player’s hotel room and told them not to get on the bus unless they planned on winning.
The Sooners did not lose that day. Gray held the Gamecocks scoreless over six innings and struck out nine. Rain eventually ended play without a run on the scoreboard. With Gray off the mound, South Carolina rolled into the College World Series the following day.
However, Gray’s confidence and his teammates’ trust in his ability were cemented.
“The way he pitched in South Carolina and the way he’s pitched this whole season, our confidence in him is unbelievable,” rightfielder Max White said. “There are no worries when he’s out there.”
Gray sees that speech and the way he backed it up as a turning point in his career.
“That was a big step for me,” he said. “I felt like I had something to tell everybody. I felt really confident. I have same confidence going into this series.”
Unflinching resolve is what OU needs as it prepares to face its arch nemesis — Texas — in a three-game series beginning at 6:30 p.m. today at Disch-Falk Field in Austin, Texas.
The Sooners (25-5, 5-1 Big 12) have not taken a series from the Longhorns (16-11, 2-4) since 1998. In the 47 games since, the Sooners are 8-39 against the Longhorns and 2-19 at Texas’ ballpark.
Skids like that go beyond physical differences in teams. For whatever reason, the Longhorns have been playing with a distinct psychological disadvantage in many of those games.
As last season played out, the Sooners were a better team than Texas. However, the Longhorns still swept the series at L. Dale Mitchell Park. The middle game in that series was a 9-5 loss in which Gray gave up five runs on eight hits over 5 1/3 innings.
“I’ve been thinking about this series since last year, because I didn’t have my best outing against them last year and we didn’t get any wins,” Gray said.
You could make a pretty strong argument that Gray’s career took off after his last appearance against the Longhorns. He went 6-1 in last season’s starts after losing to Texas. He’ll take the mound with a 5-1 record and a 1.34 ERA today. More importantly, the Sooners are 6-1 when he’s doing the pitching.
“He’s shown that even if he’s a little off, he can still dominate teams,” OU shortstop Jack Mayfield said. “Having him there and having Dillon Overton there on Saturday is a great feeling.”
Perhaps this will finally be the season OU reverses its fortunes against the Longhorns. The Big 12 Conference statistics say the Sooners have out-hit and out-pitched the Longhorns in the first half of the season.
Nevertheless, it’s the head-to-head match-ups that really matter. Texas has won 81 percent over the last 14 years, 11 of the last 12 overall and 19 of the last 21 in Austin.
It takes confidence to expel all those demons.
“Playing at Texas means they’re going to have a big crowd and it’s going to be loud,” Gray said. “You have to be mentally tough to pitch there. I think that’s an advantage for me. I think I pitch better when the crowd’s against me. I feel like I feed off that stuff.”
Whatever Gray does will have an enormous impact on the series. When he talks, his teammates listen. Where ever he leads them, they will follow.