Bennett Pitches Oklahoma to Big 12 Tournament Semifinals
ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s hard to imagine where Oklahoma would be this season without Jake Bennett, but with him, the Sooners (35-20, 14-10) are off to the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament after the lefthander tossed a gem Thursday in a 6-3 win over Texas Tech.
In a season when the Sooners have now spent 15 weeks tinkering to find answers on the mound and not always finding the answers they were looking for along the way, Bennett has been the constant.
He’s taken the ball every single weekend and set the tone. He’s thrown at least five innings in all but two starts, and in each of those two cases, he’s thrown 4.2 innings.
That’s not to say that it’s always been pretty. Bennett gave up seven and six runs in back-to-back starts against Oklahoma State and Lamar earlier this season, for example. But he almost always puts Oklahoma in position to win the game, no matter how good the opponent, and he has occasionally been brilliant.
Against Auburn opening weekend, he threw five shutout innings. Two weekends later against Louisiana State, he gave up one run on three hits in 6.2 innings to the hard-hitting Tigers. In Big 12 play, he struck out 11 in seven shutout frames against Kansas State and just a few weeks ago, gave up just one unearned run over six innings against West Virginia.
“I kind of get emotional about it because I know the work that he put in, and he’s really a routine guy and it’s a credit to what he’s done from when he was a freshman,” said Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson of what he’s meant to the team. “He’s like the poster child of our program.”
But as good as he has been this season, he hadn’t done anything this season like what he did Thursday against Texas Tech, when the lefthander completely stifled a dynamic Red Raiders lineup.
There were no Texas Tech extra base hits, and the only run he gave up was a manufactured one in the third inning when Tech catcher Hudson White singled, stole second, moved to third on a groundout and scored on a sacrifice fly.
And then there were the strikeouts, boatloads of strikeouts, a season-high 12 of them, to be exact. He had at least one in every inning and really ran through the tape, so to speak, by fanning five in the final two innings in which he worked.
He finished with 7.2 innings, having given up two hits and one run with two walks and 12 strikeouts, all on just 108 pitches.
“Bennett was ahead in the count today. Some of that was our doing, swinging at maybe some balls,” said Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock. “We might have helped him a hair early and really never got the pitch count where we needed to get it. I think you’re talking about a guy in his third year of college and that’s what it’s supposed to look like.”
In addition to a season-high in strikeouts, this was Bennett’s longest outing of the season, but in a snapshot of how good he’s been at times this season, it’s the fourth time he’s allowed two or fewer hits in an outing and it continued a season-long streak of walking two or fewer batters in every start.
Tadlock is also right on the money when he talks about Bennett coming into his own as a third-year player in the Oklahoma program. He’s gone from making just three appearances in the Covid-shortened 2020 season as a freshman to putting up a 6.34 ERA in 55.1 innings last year to developing into Oklahoma’s ace in 2022.
“I feel like I’ve come a long way since high school for sure,” Bennett said. “My mechanics just continue to improve, and my body has also gotten better.”
And now, he should give Oklahoma quite a bit of optimism about how it will fare in a postseason setting, regardless of opponent.
In fact, Thursday’s win over Texas Tech looked the part of the winning formula for the Sooners in game 1 of a regional, a super regional or the College World Series if they can get that far.
Step one is Bennett taking the ball and battling his way into the late innings. Step two is the offense striking quickly, as it did on Thursday with a three-run homer in the second inning for second baseman Jackson Nicklaus. Step three is righthander Trevin Michael, the other most important piece of the puzzle for Oklahoma on the mound, closing out a victory, as he did by throwing the final 1.1 innings.
It will take more than that for Oklahoma to go as far as it would like to go in the postseason, but it sure does provide an effective blueprint for getting off on the right foot in those settings.