Justin Hite - Scout

With two returning starters entering their draft-eligible year, Oklahoma will rely on the front end of its rotation

Sooners have to find arms in the bullpen to replace more than 200 lost innings.

For just about every team in college baseball, the pitcher’s mound pulls out the biggest question mark. Whether a team makes it to Omaha is almost always dependent on pitching – in some form or another.

As Jake Elliott and Alec Hansen tossed a ball back and forth near the warning track Tuesday, it’s clear that Oklahoma’s issues won’t be at the front of their rotation. All smiles just a few days before the season opener Friday, Elliott and Hansen, a pair of returning starters and juniors who will both likely be drafted high enough to leave school, have erased the question mark at the top.

It’s much of an exclamation point.

“If you have the top two guys back in your rotation, it starts there,” Oklahoma coach Pete Hughes said.  “. . . These guys have played a lot of baseball and had a lot of success so we’ll lean on the experience of Alec Hansen and Jake Elliott.”

Hansen will likely be the highest-drafted pitcher since Jonathan Gray. He’s projected to potentially be a top-5 pick. Elliott, a lanky 6-foot-7 right-hander who is returning for his third year as a starter, has spent much of the offseason developing a third pitch – a breaking ball.

Both pitchers give Oklahoma two pillars hoping to help the Sooners reach the College World Series for the first time since 2010.

“Jake’s been the same guy since he’s shown up,” Hughes said. “He’s a strike-thrower, and he’s so dependable. . . . (Alec has) become more of a pitcher. We hope he makes the same jump he made from his freshman to sophomore year. He’s been good his last outing. Both these guys’ last outing on Saturday was outstanding. We’re feeling really good about those two since last year.”

But that’s where the public confidence ends.

Oklahoma lost its left-handed, third starter from last year, and Robert Tasin gave the Sooners’ rotation balance. Oklahoma lost five of its top six relievers and more than 100 appearances out of its bullpen.

Only one recorded save returned to this year’s roster, which includes just four seniors – two injured fielders and a pair of pitchers who combined for 30 appearances last year.

That one save came from shortstop Sheldon Neuse, who will take on the role as Oklahoma’s closer along with his duties as the Sooners’ best offensive player.. Junior college transfer Austin Kerns (Saturday) and freshman Jake Irvin (Sunday) will make the additional starts in this weekend’s season-opening four-game set against Northeastern.

Kyle Tyler, who pitched at Westmoore High School last year, could also be in the running for a starting spot, but Kerns is likely the frontrunner for the starting spot – maybe just because he’s a left-handed thrower.

The Sooners lost 225 innings pitched out of its bullpen from last year. They’ll rely likely on junior college transfers and freshman for the bulk of the work. It might already be there, but Hughes just has to find rights arms in the bullpen, where Oklahoma returns just 61 innings pitched.

“The strength is the starting pitching, no questions,” Hughes said. “With that being said, the big question mark is out of your bullpen.”

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