By JOHN SHINN
NORMAN — Oklahoma has veterans in key places. Junior right-hander Jonathan Gray will take the mound when the Sooners open a three-game series with Kansas at 6:30 p.m. today at L. Dale Mitchell Park.
Junior Dillon Overton will follow him in the rotation Friday. OU has seniors Jack Mayfield and Max White hitting Nos. 1 and 3 in the batting order. The hottest bat in college baseball belongs to junior Matt Oberste.
However, the overlooked element in the Sooners’ hot start has been the contributions of first-year players — especially freshmen.
“You can look at anyone around the country and they’re not going to have freshmen making this kind of impact,” OU coach Sunny Golloway said. “Usually if you have that many freshmen playing, you’re probably not playing very well.”
The Sooners (23-4, 3-0 Big 12) are doing that with three freshmen — centerfielder Craig Aikin, catcher Anthony Hermelyn and first baseman Kolbey Carpenter — playing every day.
On the mound, it was freshman Ralph Garza, Jr., who threw a complete-game three-hitter in the Sooners’ 3-1 victory over Oral Roberts Tuesday. Left-hander Jacob Evans, who has become OU’s closer, was named the Big 12 newcomer of the week after earning a save and a victory in last weekend’s sweep of TCU.
The final game against Kansas (14-8, 2-1) on Saturday will feature Adam Choplick (3-0, 2.88 ERA) or Corey Coppling (0-0, 0.93 ERA) on the mound. Both are freshmen.
The pitching has been outstanding, but it’s at the plate and in the field that’s been a surprise.
Aikin is hitting at a .279 clip with 31 hits, but his speed and glove have helped solidify the outfield. Hermelyn is hitting .264, but has been solid behind the plate, starting 18 of OU’s 27 games there. Carpenter is hitting .261 while starting 23 games.
The numbers aren’t gaudy by any stretch. However, all have shown that they’re not overwhelmed by playing at this level.
“It’s just the way these young guys are. We're a young team, but they've really caught on to the way the program operates,” White said.
Where that understanding comes from is the mystery coaches have been trying to solve for generations. OU has brought in its share of talented freshmen over the years. Just about all of them struggled when they first ran into Big 12 Conference competition.
The ability to dominate the way they did in high school doesn’t typically translate without a lot of hard work. What has set this group apart has been their willingness to watch and learn.
“I learned from watching guys like Max and Obe (Oberste) in the fall,” Aikin said. “They showed me the right way to play the game and how to carry yourself. When you’re wearing this ‘Oklahoma’ on your chest it’s pride that goes way before us. It’s a tradition and you have to buy into it.”
That has allowed them to stay in the lineup despite some struggles. Golloway wasn’t expecting huge offensive seasons from any of them. The hope was they’d get a little better with each game.
Thus far, it’s worked in OU’s favor.
“They’re talented and they’re going to learn the game as we go. We have enough veterans in the lineup to kind of carry us. All the sudden, our freshmen will shine big-time. You see their talent,” Golloway said.