At this point, the road to Oklahoma’s postseason goal has become pretty clear: Win the Big 12 Championship or miss the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season – the first three-year absence from the tourney for the Sooners since 1971.
Before this current stretch, Oklahoma had only missed the tournament 11 times in the past 42 years.
Not even the best five-game stretch of the season could pull Oklahoma back from the brink, but it has given the Sooners momentum. The supremely difficult task at hand begins with a three-game series against Oklahoma State, the final Big 12 series of the season, starting Friday night in Oklahoma City.
“We have to go win the tournament to secure a spot,” Oklahoma shortstop Sheldon Neuse said. “I think the older guys on the team are definitely going to have to make that a point of emphasis. We can’t take any games off right now. We definitely can’t. . . . I think we’re hot at the right time. We’re really starting to figure it out.”
If Oklahoma (24-23-1, 9-12 Big 12) is going to make a run, it’s giving itself a chance. The Sooners have averaged almost 11 runs per game over the last five games and allowed just two runs in the final 19 innings against Kansas State, which is third-best in the conference with a team .287 batting average.
The Sooners are almost guaranteed a fifth-place finish in the conference a best but could wind up even lower. Oklahoma, which has won four of the last five, knows that it’s all or nothing when the Big 12 Championship begins in Oklahoma City two weeks.
“We’re just going to do everything we can to win,” Oklahoma infielder Austin O’Brien said. “Even if we do get beat this series, we can still get some momentum and get hot and win that Big 12 Tournament. It’s not everything or nothing, but obviously, we really want to win it and keep that momentum we had the last two games against Kansas State rolling through this weekend and hopefully to the Big 12 Tournament as well.”
It starts with this weekend’s series against Oklahoma State, which has won 12 of the last 16 games against Oklahoma. Part of this weekend is beating the Cowboys, who are second in the Big 12.
Another part is just keeping momentum going.
In order to win the Big 12 tournament championship, Oklahoma will likely have to beat the Cowboys, top-seeded Texas Tech and TCU. The Sooners are currently 0-7 this season against the top three teams in the Big 12.
“It’s a critical 10 days for us, so we can go in there and be the hottest team in the Big 12,” Oklahoma coach Pete Hughes said. “That’s what we need to do because we have to win the tournament.”
Alec Hansen threw arguably the best game of his career Saturday against Kansas State in his return to the starting rotation; showing the wild card he can be and earning a Saturday start this weekend. Freshman pitcher Jake Irvin, who will start Friday for the Sooners, has gone from mid-week starter to program ace in a little more than three weeks.
Irvin struck out ten in 5 1/3 innings and allowed just one earned run in a start earlier this season against Oklahoma State.
Freshmen Domenic DeRenzo and Steel Walker have become big pieces of the offense, and even Cody Thomas, who Hughes called an “infant in the game,” is becoming a source of power for the Sooners, who have won every home Big 12 series this season.
“We just need to get playing well on all cylinders,” Oklahoma center fielder and leadoff hitter Alex Wise said. “That’s what it’s going to take for us to get in the tournament, get hot, win the Big 12 Tournament and get in the NCAA Tournament. Just playing well as an overall team, one game at a time is how we’re looking at it now.”