Cowboys' championship mettle forged last fall

It was just a popup. Clearly, it was going to be caught. Was there really any reason to run hard to first base? <BR><BR> There was now. <BR><BR> Frank Anderson was the new baseball coach, and he was watching everything to find his 2004 team. Anderson looked beyond talent and ability. He even looked beyond hustle and attitude.

Anderson looked for character, and he demanded of his players an all-out effort at all times. They could give it, or they could sit down.

"I'd hit a pop-fly and kind of jog to first, kind of an attitude that's been built up," said Josh Fields, a preseason All-American and one of just a handful of players the Cowboys looked to for guidance. "That's totally changed to where now anything that's hit, everyone on the entire team sprints it out, regardless."

Oklahoma State's baseball team had been left out of the NCAA Tournament two years in a row despite solid numbers and strong talent. Going into last fall, the 2003 roster was steadily shrinking. The Cowboys had more departures than a New York train station. Players were afraid of change or afraid of competition, or they were told by Anderson they probably wouldn't play much, or they didn't get in line with running out those popups. In all, almost a dozen players left.

"It's more of an attitude rather than just a physical type change," Fields said. "If you put in your mind you're going to do everything hard – people can say, 'I played 110 percent today or gave it my all.' We say it but we didn't actually used to do until we figured out this year that you really have to go out there and give effort.

"I was a big part of having to do the changing, something as simple as running out regular pop flies."

The attitude adjustment was the right thing at the right time for the 2004 Cowboys, who endured ups and downs throughout the season but still chased the Big 12 Conference flag until the final weekend. Then, last week at Ameriquest Field in Arlington, Texas, the unlikely became reality: OSU won its first conference title since Gary Ward's string of 16 straight Big Eight crowns ended in 1996. The Cowboys were Big 12 Tournament champs for the first time.

"You can't measure how huge this is for our program at this point," Anderson said. "You can measure all the success they've had in the past, but this is a big deal for us right now. I'm proud of them."

In Arlington, Fields and catcher Jason Jaramillo, two of the more highly decorated Cowboys in recent years, won their first postseason game.

And with the Big 12 title comes the league's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, OSU's first since 2001. The 24th-ranked Cowboys are 37-22 and open regional play Friday at 1 p.m. against Central Florida in the first game of the Tallahassee Regional in Florida. OSU is five wins from its first College World Series appearance since 1999.

"I'm excited for our players," Anderson said. "This group of guys haven't won on a big stage for a while."

It was Anderson who last fall planted the seeds that have grown into a successful season.

"He's not as much into the mechanical part as he is the mental part," said senior pitcher Daniel Rew, the only Cowboy to play in an NCAA Tournament game. "He expects 100 percent from you at all time, and you know that."

Rew pointed to an example of what Cowboy pitchers do now on ground balls on the infield. Like pitchers at Texas Tech and Texas – programs previously strengthened when Anderson was pitching coach – OSU pitchers sprint across the base path to back up the throw to first base instead of watching from the mound.

"If you loaf on that, you get a butt-chewing. There's none of that," Rew said. "You're backing up bases on every play. You're always moving, no matter where the ball's hit. He doesn't let anyone loaf on anything. You sprint to the field when you go out to pitch and you sprint off the field when you leave. If you strike a guy out, you don't walk off the field staring at him, you sprint off the field.

"That kind of brings the competitor out in you. When you're giving 100 percent all the time, you're wanting to win. If you're giving all of yourself, you expect everybody to give all of themselves. It's like a domino effect. When they see you working hard, other people are going to work hard and it just goes right down the line."

This Cowboy club started with a nucleus of talent. Fields and Jaramillo will be among the first college players taken in the draft. Senior right fielder Rod Allen, a transfer from Arizona State, has speed and sharp defensive skills to go with 12 home runs. Senior left fielder Scott Kirby and sophomore shortstop Chris Gutierrez were second-team All-Big 12.

But OSU has made hay with two resilient left-handers on the mound, a junior college transfer at second base, a freshman center fielder and a freshman DH, a shaky trio at first base and suspect depth in the bullpen. Most surprising are southpaw pitchers Thomas Cowley and Spencer Grogan, who combined last season for 87 2/3 innings (76 by Grogan) and went 3-5 (all by Grogan) with a 5.33 earned run average. This year they pitched 209 2/3 innings and finished 19-5 with a 3.69 ERA.

"Attitude and mentality has been a huge issue with coach," Grogan said.

Still, most observers feel that man-for-man, OSU team doesn't have the talent of the 2002 and '03 clubs that went 0-2 in the Big 12 Tournament and were not invited to regional play.

"I think that's fair to say," said Fields. "The coaches have done a good job. They didn't have much time to recruit and get guys in here. . . .. Basically it's a bunch of guys that get along and like to play baseball. The past two seasons, we may have had some big-time guys that were supposed to get drafted but really didn't have the best of attitudes going out and playing. This year, everyone gets along, we all hang out on and off the field, and that's a big part of our success."

"I always say if you compete at the highest level, you'll make plays you never made before, as long as you give your heart and soul to it," Anderson said. "You start to overcome barriers, and I thought we overcame some barriers this week."

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