The Oklahoma baseball team will be off to Houston, Texas on Thursday to play in their first Super Regional since the NCAA went to the new format in 1998. The Sooners had to come back in the losers' bracket and beat rival Wichita State twice to earn the right to take on No. 1 ranked Rice.
The teams split during the regular season, and depending on how the Sooners are ranked in the latest polls the game will pit two of the top 15 teams in the country. OU expects to be in a dogfight this weekend in Houston, but considering what they went through in their own regional they feel like they can play through anything.
More often than not this season, the Sooners lost the first game in a weekend series only to come back and win the next two games. So in reality, they won the regional much like they had played all season long.
"It was kind of benefiting of our whole season this weekend," said OU head coach Sunny Golloway. "We knew even when we were up 6-0 in that final game. We had a couple of opportunities with the bases loaded, and we knew we really needed to score because nobody is going to go away easy at this point in the season. Wichita State is a great program and they have had a coach there who has had tremendous success, so when we didn't score in those two situations we knew it was going to be close.
"You know you just have to make conscious decisions, and I made a decision that the guy who should have the opportunity to be at the bottom of the dog-pile was Daniel (McCutchen). If they had tied it we had already made the decision to bring in (Steven) Guerra to get us out of the inning, and then we were going to bring in a new pitcher to kind of start us fresh again. Fortunately, Daniel got the out and all is well."
Wichita State used a lot more pitchers in the two championship games than OU, but Golloway felt his pitching came through with flying colors following the opening loss to TCU.
"We had to plan ahead. There is no doubt about that," said Golloway. "I hate to say it, but you have to win because there is no tomorrow. You also have to map it out for your student-athletes. They have to know that there is a gameplan and that each hard fought victory is going to give them another opportunity where they can find victory. We weren't just going to send somebody out after the first game, we had a plan and we stuck to it.
"I think Ryan Mottern stepping up and pitching great for us against TCU, and Guerra doing what he did against Houston was exceptional. They are a ranked team and they were ranked as high as eighth in the country. They allowed us to keep our bullpen fresh. Then we went to Brad Burns and it was tough on him, because 'Burnsy' hasn't started all year. He has only pitched a couple of innings, but he did what he needed to do. He got us to a three-and-a-third inning and that allowed Daniel to come in. Really, that was perfect timing. I don't know if Daniel could have gotten us another out. He was probably right at the end of his rope."
Even after getting beat 15-3 by Oklahoma in Norman, Rice is ranked No. 1 and playing some of the best baseball in the country.
"They are ranked No. 1 in the country in everyone's poll and for good reason," said Golloway. "I think they have won 31 of their last 33. Of course, one of those losses was the 15-3 loss here in Norman. However, we do know we are playing them down there where we lost 8-2 early in the year in a tournament. We won two games on that field, and I think that is an important factor because we know we found victory on that field. We just didn't find victory against Rice."
"They have two outstanding starting pitchers in Joe Savery, a lefthander who was with Team USA, and Eddie Degerman who may be one of the best right-handers around," Golloway continued. "He is 12-1 with a 1.21 ERA. He has a real funky delivery right over the top and he stretches up on top of his toe. He has a little jerky motion, but we have to find a way to hit him, and we will do that. It might be just being very patient, because his breaking ball is out of the zone a lot. One way or another we have to score runs, and we know that. I think with McCutchen, Guerra and the way the rest of our staff performed, we have a real good opportunity to go down there and win two-out-of-three."
One of the keys to hitting that great Rice pitching will rest in the hands of Sooner seniors Ryan Rohlinger (Regional MVP) and Chuckie Caufield. Rohlinger has always been considered the Sooners best hitter, but at one point this season he was dropped down to seventh or eighth in the order because he wasn't hitting. Towards the end of the season, Rohlinger worked his way back into the heart of the line-up and the Sooners' offense began to hit on all cylinders.
"There are things during the course of the year that you look at and say for us to get to Omaha, Rohlinger has got to be back in the three. But that doesn't mean you force feed it during the middle of the year," said Golloway. "Sometimes a young man struggles. You have to remember that these are amatures and they are not professionals. He just wasn't getting enough fastballs. When you sit in the three and four hole, like Kody Kaiser last night, he didn't get anything to hit. Everything was off-speed. He was very frustrated and it can really be taxing on those guys.
"But when you drop them down, especially against an opponent that doesn't know them very well, they will get a lot of fastballs down in the line-up. That is what got 'Rolly' going as some teams didn't know him as well, even though he is a senior, and they feed him more fastballs. It is funny how pitchers will really pitch at the top of the line-up and then they will go to sleep and throw a lot of fastballs at the bottom half."
"That got Rolly going again and we bumped him right back up where we needed him to be," Golloway continued. "The timing worked out perfect for (Russell) Raley, Rohlinger and several of our key guys. Kevin Smith has come up big for us. And how about that Norman product Brandon Moss? He just works hard every day. We stick him in the four hole during the regional and he hits a grand-slam and a solo home run. He also gets a single in the championship game. It is a really great story for that freshman product from Norman."
At the top of the order, Chuckie Caufield has been just what the doctor ordered. And at the bottom Aaron Reza has been a plus. Inserting Reza into the line-up at shortstop hasn't hurt the defense, and he has been a shot-in-the-arm for the offense.
"Reza stays back really well at the plate and he is a tough guy mentally," said Golloway. "I get excited when I think that Jackson Williams is just a sophomore, Reza is just a sophomore and that Aaron Ivey and Joseph Hughes will both be back. You build your team defensively from the middle out. That is a catcher, shortstop and a couple of centerfielders who are pretty good players. Our future bodes really well when you comment on how good those players are. When you look at how well they performed and how tough they were, it is amazing what that does for their confidence. For Chuckie to hit that home run is benefiting of what he has meant to our Sooner program."
The Sooners are expected to start Guerra in game 1 and McCutchen in game 2. They are not sure who they will go with in a game three, but you can bet it will either be Mottern, John Brownell or Burns. That decision will be based on how much Brownell pitches in relief in game 1 or 2. If it is only an inning or two, he would get the start in game three.
Oklahoma will practice in Norman on Wednesday and then fly to Houston on Thursday. The first game is set for Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. followed by a Sunday match-up at noon. The 'if necessary' game on Monday is cheduled for noon as well.
Golloway confident as Sooners head to Houston
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