A&M Sweeps OU

Thanks to good play and good fortune, the Texas A&M baseball program can make a boast that has almost completely eluded it this decade. First place in the Big 12.

Thanks to yet another conference sweep, this time of the Oklahoma Sooners (8-7, 10-3, and 12-2 in seven innings) , and an assist from Oklahoma State, the Aggies sit alone atop the Big 12 standings at 12-3. That mark is the best start in Big 12 history for A&M and keeps them 1/2 game ahead of second place Nebraska (11-3) and 3.5 games ahead of third place Missouri (7-5). Texas, Baylor, and Oklahoma State all sit at 8-7, four games behind the Aggies.

Just as important as the continued conference success is the placement for postseason play. Though rankings have absolutely no appreciable impact on any selection committee decisions, perception can help reality and at least a pair of recognized polls seem primed to include the Aggies amongst their Top 8 tomorrow. The weekend's sweep will also pay dividends on A&M's RPI, which had moved up 12 spots before Sunday's finale.

The back-to-back-to-back conference sweeps are the first for the Aggies since the 1991 season, when they swept Rice, Texas, and TCU in successive weekends. A&M has now won 13 straight contests, the longest winning streak in the nation, and now enjoy the program's third quickest ascension to 30 wins (36 games, trailing only the 1989 and 1993 teams).

The blueprint for another sweep, despite the more difficult competition, was much the same as the one against Kansas State - good starting pitching and great offense. The great offense was there, and the starting pitching upgraded itself from good to great in the three game set.

The success of Matt Deggs' offense is a huge reason the Aggies cling to first place in the Big 12 conference, but the method in which the runs are coming may be paramount to the final total. Big early innings do wonders for the nature of the contest, as the pitching staff is enabled to throw strikes instead of picking at the zone, and the opponent is immediately placed in react mode and begins playing catch-up early in the contest.

After six runs in Friday's second inning and another pair on Saturday' second frame, A&M has now hung a "crooked number" in the first two innings in 10 of 15 league contests. Nine of those 10 games sit in the win column, and effectively fuel the team's championship drive.

Friday's contest would be far from over, though, as the six runs were in response to a two-run first inning for OU. Brooks Raley, pitching with his brother Russell coaching first base for OU just 75 feet away, had a solid but not spectacular night, allowing three runs, and left the game in the hands of the traditionally capable Aggie bullpen with a 7-3 lead after a Luke Anders solo HR in the sixth inning.

Kyle Thebeau and Travis Starling, who have been nails all year, suddenly struggled. Thebeau had difficulty finding the strike zone, an old problem that has rarely reared its head this year, and Starling seemed overly reliant on his knuckle curve and saw one hit from the ballpark in the eighth inning to cut the lead to one.. He would then allow two more extra base hits to tie the game at seven, but a nice relay from from Brian Ruggiano to Blake Stouffer to Dane Carter ended the eighth inning rally.

The game would remain tied until the bottom of the ninth, when a basehit, sacrifice bunt, walk, and infield hit would load the bases with one out for Jose Duran. Duran's bat, freshly awakening from a short mid-season slump, got the ball just far enough between middle infielders to earn an infield hit and plate Brodie Greene for the 8-7 victory.

Saturday's contest would be far different, but Anders' Friday night homerun may have permated into the discussion. Anders was plunked in his first two at-bats, and the second plunking seemed to excite someone in the OU dugout. Matt Deggs left his coaching box at third base to confront the incident, and before long both benches had emptied to the infield warning track. The situation seemed in hand before Rob Childress took exception to a comment by OU coach Sonny Golloway, and soon the A&M and OU coaches were having to be physically separated from one another. No punches were thrown, and the result of the 20 minute fiasco was the ejection of three Aggie coaches; Deggs, Andy Sawyers, and Jason Hutchins.

The Aggie bats, despite a 2-1 lead, would remain hitless until the fifth inning, when they would erupt for eight runs in the next three frames. Duran was the hero again, going two for five with 3 RBIs. Darby Brown, a night after seeing his hitting streak conclude at 17 games, had a clutch two-out two-RBI double to help seal the deal.

The offense was more than enough for freshman Barret Loux, who scattered six hits for two runs in 7.2 innings for his best performance in an Aggie uniform. He also struck out nine while just walking three before handing the ball to Hank Robertson, who allowed a meaningless ninth inning run to conclude the scoring at 10-3.

With the series in hand and first place in the Big 12 conference now secured, at least for the time being, the Aggies turned their focus towards the sweep and were not to be denied. Though no runs came the first two frames, A&M tacked on four in the third and kept the assault consistent through the bottom of the seventh, when Duran cleared the bases with a three-run triple that ended any Sooner hopes.

Clayton Ehlert earned another shot at the Sunday starter role with his good performance against KSU, and followed it up with another great outing against OU. The sophomore allowed just one earned run in seven innings, hurling A&M's first complete game (albeit shortened) of the year. He struck three batters out and did not surrender a single free pass.

All told, A&M's three starters combined to throw 21 of the 25 innings, and achieved a 3.00 ERA in those games while allowing OU to bat just .262, over 50 points below their season average. The Aggie bullpen, usually reliable, was quite shaky (9.00 ERA) but the low inning count kept these key arms with much needed rest entering the stretch run.

Offensively, the Aggies hit .343 against the Sooners with 11 extra base hits. Duran was the big Aggie bat for the weekend, hitting .400 while driving in seven runs. Anders, who found himself as the center of much weekend attention, hit .625 and drove in three runs while reaching base at a .769 clip. Blake Stouffer continues his torrid pace at the plate, hitting .555 with six runs scored and role-performing almost impeccably well in the two-hole. He's now hitting .348 during his twelve game hitting streak.

A&M returns to Olsen tomorrow night in a key tilt, for both regional bragging and potential hosting rights, against Rice. First pitch is set for 6:30.

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