OKLAHOMA CITY - In the past, Oklahoma coach Pete Hughes never directly talked to his team about playing on a big stage. He didn’t do it when he was coaching Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship against North Carolina nor when the Hokies hosted a regional that same season.
Hughes broke that trend before the Sooners’ series against Bedlam, knowing that Oklahoma needed to keep vital momentum rolling in order to reach the NCAA Tournament. He told them about the big crowds and the major juncture. And Oklahoma took two of three from Oklahoma State, the first time the Sooners won the Bedlam conference series since 2010.
Freshman Jake Irvin started two of the four games against the Cowboys – two of the bigger stages of the season. Irvin will go back to the mound first thing Wednesday morning as Oklahoma hopes to go on a season-saving run to the Big 12 title.
“This is the time of year where you’ve gotta get hot,” Hughes said. “I think we’re playing our best baseball. . . . You need consistent, quality starting pitching, which for the most part we’ve had. We’ve gotta keep the bats hot, too. It makes things so much easier when we’re swinging the bats like we have been recently. That’s gotta carry over this week to have success and make a run at this thing.”
No. 5 Oklahoma (28-25-1) opens play against West Virginia at 9 a.m. Wednesday having won eight of the last 11 games. The Mountaineers have been hot, too. West Virginia has won 14 of its last 17 games. Hughes called West Virginia the hottest team in the Big 12 Conference on Tuesday.
He also said that the Mountaineers have the pitching advantage with starter Michael Grove, who threw 8 1/3 shutout inning in relief against Oklahoma earlier this season after the Sooners scored seven runs in the first inning of the loss.
Irvin, who has locked down Oklahoma State twice, gives the Sooners a chance.
Right now, that’s what Oklahoma needs the most.
“He put the switch on. It was time to be good,” Hughes said of Irvin before the Bedlam series. “If he wasn’t good enough, he wouldn’t be here. That’s exactly what I told him. I said, ‘It’s up to you now to flip the switch and say yeah I’m going to be productive. I know I’m not pitching in high school in Minnesota any more, but I know I’m good enough.’”
Oklahoma will play the corresponding result from the Texas Tech-Kansas State game on Thursday in the second round. Oklahoma State has ended the Sooners’ season in each of the past two years. The only time the Bedlam rivals would meet again is in the championship game of the double-elimination tournament.
Irvin would have a chance to go again on three days rest if the Sooners would need their ace to get them into the NCAA Tournament.
Sheldon Neuse, who was named a unanimous All-Big 12 first teamer for the third straight year, is healthy for the tournament, but Jake Flansburg, who is third on the team in average, is a game-day decision.
Steele Walker, who was named the to league’s All-Freshman team, is third in batting on the team and has stepped into a larger role.
But it’s Irvin – on a unique stage – that needs to get Oklahoma moving towards a championship. Playing in front of a limited crowd before most college students are used to waking up in the summer, Hughes told Irvin that he needs to provide the energy.
“We have to dictate the atmosphere ourselves by the way we play and the way we approach things,” Hughes said. “. . . We’re gonna get these guys up early, and we’re gonna attack it like there’s 7,000 people in the stadium.”