For about the first half of the season, first-year Oklahoma baseball coach Pete Hughes seemed to be pushing all the right buttons.
Entering the season with 22 freshmen and sophomores combined on his roster, Hughes got the Sooners off to a quick start, winning 22 of their first 32 games and four of their first six in the Big 12 Conference.
Lately, however, that youth has struggled with inconsistency that has OU (25-17, 5-7 in the Big 12) scuffling, losing seven of their last nine and going 1-5 in their last two Big 12 series.
“We’re just inconsistent right now,” said Hughes, who came to Oklahoma after seven successful seasons at Virginia Tech. “It’s a challenge for young teams to play consistently in all phases of the game, and that usually rears its ugly head when you’re tired and the season starts progressing. Our challenge is to get back on track and start playing consistent baseball.”
Hughes began the year with a few key offensive players returning in catcher Anthony Hermelyn, outfielder Craig Aikin and shortstop Hector Lorenzana. Throw in a surge in production from outfielder/catcher Mac James and right fielder Hunter Haley, and the emergence of freshman third baseman Sheldon Neuse, and it looked like the Sooners would not miss a beat from their 43-win season in 2013.
But the youth has started to catch up to the Sooners a bit the last two weeks, and that has highlighted somewhat the holes left in the pitching staff that OU hasn’t completely filled just yet.
Oklahoma had two of the more dominant pitchers in the Big 12 in 2013 in Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton. With their departure to the pros, so went with them 31 combined starts and 218 innings pitched. Also gone are the 13 combined starts from Ethan Carnes, Billy Waltrip and Jake Fisher.
Freshman starter Jake Elliott has been out with a back injury after eight starts, and sophomore Corey Copping has struggled to the point where Hughes will move the sophomore to the bullpen for this weekend’s series at Texas Tech (32-13, 8-7).
That has left the Sooners with sophomore left-handers Adam Choplick (3-2, 4.05 ERA) and Jacob Evans (3-2, 3.89), last year’s closer with nine saves, as his two top starters, with his Sunday starting slot open at the moment.
“Do we have three front-line guys we can depend on to give us seven innings every game? Not many teams do,” Hughes said. “But we just have guys who are finding their way and trying to get comfortable with their roles.”
Luckily for Hughes, the Sooner bullpen has been fantastic this season. Led by right-handers Ralph Garza, Jr. and Kindle Ladd, the OU bullpen entered the week with a 17-4 record and 2.61 ERA, allowing Hughes to have a short hook with his starters if needed. Several other pitchers, like Drew Krittenbrink and Robert Tasin, have already obliterated their total number of innings pitched from last season.
Now, if the offense can come back around.
The Sooners rank fifth in the Big 12 with a .284 batting average, and rank in the top three in the league in runs (252), triples (15), home runs (23) and walks (195). But they also have the third highest total of strikeouts.
James, who hit just .222 last year, ranks second in the Big 12 with a .371 average and 33 RBIs to go with five home runs. Neuse, hitting third, has a .304 average with four home runs and 33 RBIs while Haley is hitting .298 with six home runs and 28 RBIs.
In the last six Big 12 games, however, the Sooners have been outscored 44-21 by Texas and West Virginia, losing five of those six games and allowing seven runs or more in each of those five losses.
OU has also struggled giving away runs. The Sooners rank seventh in the Big 12 in fielding percentage (.962) and have committed the most errors among conference teams with 64.
“When you’re hitting, it’s easier,” Hughes said. “There’s not as much pressure on every pitch and every play and every RBI situation when you’re swinging the bats well. When you’re not, everybody seems to be pressing, and so we haven’t been as consistent lately. Usually you can create runs and put some pressure on teams with your legs, but we don’t run well as a team and so we’ve got to be able to hit to get things going.”
Which is what Hughes is hoping the Sooners can do this weekend.
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