By JOHN SHINN
A mesh sign down the right-field line spells out Oklahoma’s baseball tradition in years. The two national champions are at the top, the three NCAA tournament super regional appearances are in the middle. At the bottom are the 35 NCAA tournament years.
There’s an opening just underneath 2002 and just to right of 2012 that needs to be filled in.
What happens when the Sooners (36-19) face Baylor (27-25) in the Big 12 tournament’s opening game at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, could have a huge impact on whether that spot remains vacant.
“We know we need to win some games to help our cause,” Sooner catcher Anthony Hermelyn said. “If we can get another quality win against a team like Kansas State, it would help. But you try to win every game. We’re looking to make a run.”
How deep a run does OU need to make in the Big 12 tournament? Depends on what statistics you look at and whose opinion you value. The only ones who know for sure are the members of the NCAA tournament selection committee. It make its pronouncement Monday.
The Sooners are No. 51 in the Ratings Percentage Index heading into the Big 12 tournament. The ranking puts them on the bubble.
But OU refuses to believe it is a bubble team.
“No,” OU coach Sunny Golloway said when asked if he believed he had to win the Big 12 tournament to get into the NCAA tournament.
“Unless you talked to the committee and know we’re in — what did you call it (a do-or-die situation). If you know that for fact that we are, tell me and I’ll go tell them. But I don’t see it that way.”
There are legitimate factors working in OU’s favor. It’s RPI isn’t great, but teams with RPIs in the 50s get at-large bids every year. The program’s tournament history doesn’t hurt either. It’s been a tournament team seven of the last eight years. Only once did it fail to reach the regional tournament title game. Three of those years it won the regional, including on the road at Virginia last season.
Golloway also pointed out that having Jonathan Gray, who will take the mound against the Bears today and could be the first player selected in next month’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, was also a strong selling point.
Nonetheless, the label OU has to shake is that of a team in the midst of a downward spiral. There’s no getting around the fact it’s lost its last three series to West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. Sandwiched between those series losses were two midweek losses to Dallas Baptist. They’re 3-8 over their last 10 games.
The Big 12 tournament is the last chance to show OU can start ticking back up.
“I don’t think we’re taking it as do or die,” first baseman Matt Oberste said. “We’d really like to win this one (Big 12 tournament). We were close last year but didn’t get it done. We want to win a few games. I still think we’re gonna get a regional bid, but we want to win a Big 12 championship.”
The difference between need and want is what it all comes down to. Win the Big 12 tournament and the need for an at-large bid goes away.
Either way, the Sooners know winning games in Oklahoma City can solve problems — real or perceived. They just don’t want to be told extending their season hinges on winning the Big 12 tournament.
“We have to be relaxed. We can’t go into a game all tense and worried about this could be last game of the season,” outfielder Craig Aikin said. “You have to have fun and stay loose to play your best ball.”
The Sooners haven’t in a while, but it’s baseball. Teams can get hot or cold with one swing of the bat. They believe their fortunes are about to change. They just refuse to believe their NCAA tournament hopes hinge on it happening.
“I don’t think that mindset would be the best for these guys,” outfielder Max White said. “It’s not do or die, but more intense and more energetic. We know we have to exhaust our efforts this weekend.”
OU baseball notebook: Gray to start against Baylor
The decision to delay the start of the Big 12 tournament until today allowed Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway to alter his pitching rotation.
Jonathan Gray will get the start when the Sooners face Baylor at 9 a.m. today at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark. Dillon Overton was originally slated to start in the tournament’s opening game.
Why make the switch?
“Because it’s the best arm in the country and it’s fresh and ready to go,” Golloway said of Gray, who is 8-2 with a 1.69 ERA. “Why wouldn’t you throw (Gray) right off the get-go?”
Gray hasn’t thrown since taking a no-decision in the Sooners’ 6-5 loss at Kansas State last Friday.
There’s another reason for using Gray today. There’s at least a 30 percent chance of rain today through Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.
“If it starts raining and we only played one game and I didn’t throw Jon, you guys would be asking to see my degree and making sure I actually graduated,” Golloway said.
Elite company: Gray has registered 115 strikeouts this season, crossing the 100-strikeout milestone for the second straight season. He is the sixth OU pitcher to accomplish the feat.
The previous five were Jackson Todd (1972-73), Marty Kunkler (1975-76), Bobby Witt (1984-85), Matt Ruebel (1990-91) and Mark Redman (1994-95). All five each was picked within the first four rounds of the MLB draft, three were All-Americans (Todd, Witt, Redman) and two became MLB All-Stars (Witt, Redman).
Playing loose: Golloway allowed catcher Anthony Hermelyn to call the pitches in the 7-3 victory over Kansas State last Sunday. It was the first time this season pitching coach Jack Giese didn’t do it.
Whether it carries over into the Big 12 tournament is still being debated, but in the regular-season finale it had the desired effect.
“I was excited for it. It was a new experience for me, a new challenge,” Hermelyn said. “It went really well.”
Running hot in neutral: OU second baseman Hector Lorenzana should be pleased to return to Bricktown. He recorded five hits in 11 at-bats (.455) with three runs scored and six runs batted in OU’s three neutral site games against Oklahoma State earlier this season. Couple that with OU’s neutral site games against Iowa, New Mexico and Notre Dame, Lorenzana is batting a team-high .455 batting average and 8 RBIs in neutral site games.
Ignorance is bliss: Freshman outfielder Craig Aikin, who hit .340 in Big 12 Conference games, hasn’t been keeping with NCAA tournament projections all season. He’s not going to start now.
“I think a beautiful thing has been being a freshman I’ve been ignorant to how all this works and the significance of a loss here or a loss in a midweek would have on the program,” he said. “I just go out every day and try to play. Things will work out like they’re supposed to as long as you’re giving 100 percent on the field.”
Against the field: OU will Baylor today, Texas Tech Friday and Kansas State Saturday in Pool A of the Big 12 tournament. The Sooners went 1-2 against the Bears and Wildcats and 2-1 against the Red Raiders.
In the Big 12 tournament, the Sooners are 2-3 all-time against Baylor, 1-2 versus Kansas State and 6-3 versus Texas Tech.