Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

April 12, 2013

Sooners trying to hold onto Big 12 lead

NORMAN — Historically, Oklahoma has played its best baseball at the end of season. The last few years were characterized by runs late in the regular season and into the postseason.

The position the Sooners (27-6, 7-2) occupy atop the Big 12 Conference standings hasn’t happened very often. How will they handle the pressure of being the leader instead of one of the chasers?

Some evidence will be provided when OU opens a three-game series with Baylor (17-16, 5-3) at Baylor Ballpark in Waco, Texas, at 6:30 p.m. today.

Claiming the series against Texas removed a huge burden on the program. OU had not taken a series from the Longhorns since 1998 and the Big 12 Conference was just two years old at that point.

However, another burden remains.

OU has never won a Big 12 regular-season baseball championship. It has finished second by a half-game twice (2004 and 2009), but hasn’t put that trophy in the case.

“Because of the way we’ve started out we’ve built a lot of confidence,” first baseman/designated hitter Matt Oberste said. “Having a lead in the Big 12 standings is something that is very important for us.” The Sooners have been over .500 in conference play after three series just five times since 2004 and 2004 marked the last time OU won its first three series to start the conference slate.

Traditionally, the stumbling block had always been a late March or early April encounter with the Longhorns. Now that OU has successfully navigated that series, it can look toward bigger things — like winning the Big 12 Conference.

“It’s an important step for this team,” right fielder Max White said. “We want to get a ring and then we want to host a regional and super regional and get to Omaha. To get that experience of winning a Big 12 championship would be awesome.”

There is more pressure to win the league than ever before. The Big 12 Conference is the fifth best league in college baseball according to the Ratings Percentage Index. The SEC, ACC and Pac-12 are way ahead of the Big 12 and right now, so is the Sun Belt.

A middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big 12 won’t be rewarded with an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament anymore. Winning the league is about the only way to secure an at-large spot.

Is OU ready to do that?

OU coach Sunny Golloway believes so. The main reason for his conviction is the Sooners’ pitching staff.

“I think we are because of the arms we have,” OU coach Sunny Golloway said. “I think (your are) when you have Jon Gray and Dillon Overton and even Adam Choplick, despite him running into trouble last week. I think Ralph Garza has made a big step coming out of the bullpen and Jake Fisher is throwing really well. Jacob Evans has been ridiculous for a freshman.

“…If we want to be the kind of program we want to be, we’ve got to be able to get to the top of the ladder and stay at the top. Right now, we’re there. We’ll see how long we can stay there.”

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