OU seeks pitching revival

Sooners hope added experience can change fortunes on the mound

This summer, Oklahoma sophomore pitcher Jacob Evans took a vacation of sorts.

Although it was far more business and pleasure, Evans knew where all the hot spots were along Cape Cod and in Boston – his coach even gave him a few pointers.

Evans even caught a game at Fenway Park.

He spent far more of his time though, perfecting his craft alongside teammates Craig Aikin and Anthony Hermelyn. The three played in the prestigious Cape Cod league this past summer.

“You’re facing everybody’s lead-off or everybody’s three or four hole,” Evans said. “. . . You really have to learn to pitch up there from my standpoint. It’s learning what you have to do.”

After Evans’ freshman season, only a couple of Sooners pitched in the summer. This past summer, nearly 10 pitchers sought out to improve themselves.

Oklahoma will rely on that improvement this season, leaning on a staff that returns 20 wins from last season after returning just one from a season before.

“Therein lies your problems, with lack of experience,” Oklahoma second-year coach Pete Hughes said. “We’re a year older, and these guys are a year better. . . . There’s three competitive guys with a heck of a lot of experience and have really good stuff. I just think one more year of experience is going to help our starting pitching more than anything else.”

Evans will be the strength of the staff, having appeared in 21 games last season and made nine starts. His experience will be key in the back end of the bullpen along with Ralph Garza and part-time pitcher Sheldon Neuse.

Adam Choplick and Jake Elliot will once again be the top starters with Jeff Curran, Corey Copping and Alec Hansen being given a chance to earn a starting role as well.

The Sooners will still have to grow on the mound.

Last season, Oklahoma finished second-to-last in the Big 12 Conference in home runs allowed, ERA, opponent batting average, hits and earned runs. They were the only team in the conference without a registered complete game and finished with the most walks per nine inning and most runs allowed in the conference.

Having the worst team defensive fielding percentage in the Big 12 Conference doesn’t help much either.

“We finished at the top of the league last year offensively, and we finished eighth in the standings,” Hughes said. “That should tell you the emphasis or the importance of offense. . . . We need to play good defense, and we need to pitch and throw strikes and continue to grow as a team.”

Oklahoma, which missed the postseason last year for the first time since 2007, will have plenty of time to do that.

The Sooners will playing 59 games – more than the common 56 games – because of a four-game series in Hawaii in March. They’ll have to learn quickly, though. Oklahoma will play 10 games in the first 10 days of the season, including a tournament-style series with Notre Dame and Southern Illinois Edwardsville and the Big 12/Pac 12 Challenge with four games in Arizona.

“To get to Omaha, you have to be tough,” Hughes said. “You get tough by playing on the road. You have to grind through stretches of the season. We’ve kind of set up the schedule to challenge our guys to build toughness. So when it comes to postseason play, we have laid the ground work.

“ . . . It’s as difficult of a schedule as I’ve ever coached. I think we needed to upgrade our schedule and make it a tough schedule to our guys can play on the road and play in different stretches and play at a high level.”

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