Oklahoma State Gets Back On Track In NCAA Tournament Opener
DELAND, Fla.—Oklahoma State finished April as one of the hottest teams in the country. The Cowboys were in first place in the Big 12 Conference and had just extended their winning streak to seven games with a sweep of archrival Oklahoma in the Bedlam Series.
But as the calendar flipped to May, Oklahoma State’s momentum disappeared. It on May Day lost at Oral Roberts, 6-5, and went on to go 2-10 in the month. The Cowboys lost five of their last six Big 12 games, allowing Texas to pass them for the conference championship. They then went 0-2 in the Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City and were 29-24-1 on Selection Monday when the selection committee announced them as one of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament field.
The Cowboys didn’t care that the selection committee saw them as a bubble team. They just saw their name come up as the No. 3 seed in the DeLand Regional, hosted by Stetson, and paired with the No. 2 seed South Florida. Just making the tournament and having the opportunity to keep playing was enough for Oklahoma State.
“What you do with that opportunity is why we play these games,” coach Josh Holliday said. “The other stuff is out there and part of the narrative but for us it means nothing. And I mean that because our focus the minute they announced where we were going was to get on the field and get back to work knowing we would face three good baseball teams on the road. For us, we’ll take that opportunity.”
Oklahoma State on Friday made the most of the opportunity in its opening game of the NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys beat the Bulls, 9-2, to advance in the winners’ bracket and set up a game Saturday night against Stetson, the No. 11 national seed, and All-American righthander Logan Gilbert.
Oklahoma State’s offense rolled Friday against USF. Christian Funk and Carson McCusker homered, while the Cowboys pounded out 15 hits. Eight of Oklahoma State’s nine starters had hits and seven scored at least once.
On the mound, the Cowboys got a solid day from Reza Aleaziz and Carson Teel, who combined to hold a potent USF offense to two runs while scattering seven hits and four walks. Aleaziz threw the first three innings before giving way to Teel, the Cowboys’ ace and jack-of-all-trades on the mound. The lefthander this season has filled several different roles for Oklahoma State and has been dependable, improving Friday to 8-4, 4.34.
Teel said the pitching staff bore responsibility for Oklahoma State’s late-season skid. The Cowboys gave up an average of 9.08 runs per game in May but got off to a strong start in the NCAA Tournament.
“Our pitching kind of lacked a little bit at the end of the year,” he said. “We gave up a lot of runs. We knew if we kept working we could get it back where we thought we could be.”
Holiday took an optimistic tone about the Cowboys struggles last month. Oklahoma State played tough competition and its final two Big 12 series came at Baylor, which won 20 of its last 22 games going into the NCAA Tournament, and against Texas Tech, perhaps the most talented team in the conference.
Holiday said playing teams like those prepared Oklahoma State for regionals.
“I think those games in some ways sharpened us up and hardened us up,” he said. “This is the postseason and those regular season games showed us where we need to get better. They showed us some of the holes in our game and forced us to make adjustments so that when we tackle some of these great clubs we’re putting it all on the line.
“That’s how you have to look at those struggles. Otherwise I’d have been in an awful mood the entire month of May and I’m not into living that way.”
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Oklahoma State’s victory Friday was a big step to getting back to the level it knows it can play. When the Cowboys get the pitching they had Friday to go with their powerful offense, they are tough to beat.
Catcher Colin Simpson said he feels the Cowboys got overlooked a bit going into regionals, but believes they have a postseason run to come.
“I think we did get a little overlooked, but we are in the tournament, we are in regionals, so they didn’t overlook us too much,” Simpson said. “If we can get back to the way we played midseason and get back to that shape of our team, then I think we can go a long way in the postseason.”
Oklahoma State certainly knows how to win in the postseason. The Cowboys two years ago reached the College World Series and last year won the Big 12 Tournament. This year’s team is full of players who were a part of those runs and have plenty of college baseball experience.
Holliday said his team wasn’t looking to prove anything after being named one of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys are simply looking to take advantage of the opportunity postseason baseball presents.
“We understand that if you play well and you’re a gamer and you want competition and you elevate yourself and you train for this then you should live for this,” Holliday said. “And if you need something like that to motivate you then we should have turned our stuff in and started summer time. These kids are proud. They’ve put a lot into this. This means a great deal to them.”