Oklahoma Falls In CWS Finals, But Sends Message With Postseason Run
OMAHA — Sunday afternoon the magic that Oklahoma had been working with all postseason, which helped it through a deciding seventh game of the Gainesville Regional and a deciding third game of the Blacksburg Super Regional, ran out.
Or perhaps the magic that Mississippi brought to the table, which guided it from dead in the water midway through the season to Omaha, was simply too much to overcome.
Either way, a heartbreaking 4-2 loss, which earned Ole Miss its first national championship, brought an end to a special season capped by a special postseason run for the Sooners.
A loss at this stage of the postseason is always going to hurt, but the way it happened certainly doesn’t help.
Righthander Cade Horton pitched as well as he possibly could have. He threw 7.1 innings, giving up four hits and two runs with no walks and 13 strikeouts, which is a record for a College World Series finals game.
As was the case in his earlier start in the CWS against Notre Dame, Horton was at times electric, working with a fastball that touched the high 90s and a high-80s slider. Between the two starts in Omaha, he struck out 24 batters and walked one in 13.1 innings.
It was everything he had to give on Sunday. It would have been enough to win on just about any other day, but not this one.
“I just stuck to what I've been doing the last few starts, and that was just taking it one pitch at a time,” Horton said. “I just wanted to put my team in a position to win and get ahead and throw strikes.”
What also makes the loss tough to swallow is that there was some tough luck along the way. The Sooners appeared to take a 1-0 lead in the top of the sixth thanks to an Ole Miss error on a John Spikerman squeeze bunt attempt, but upon review, Spikerman was found to have been out of the runner's lane when he collided with Ole Miss first baseman Tim Elko on the play, which not only ruled him out but also took the run off the board.
Despite that deflating turn of events, the Sooners managed to take a 2-1 lead with two runs in the top of the seventh, one on a Jackson Nicklaus bloop RBI double into left field and another on a Kendall Pettis bases-loaded walk.
“They're going to fight,” Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson said. “That's one thing that they've done all year long. They've fought and they've fought and they've fought and they've battled and battled. That's a part of their DNA, and that's a part of what the University of Oklahoma has taught them to do and our culture has taught them how to do.”
After grabbing the lead, Horton came back out and struck out the side in the bottom of the seventh but things unraveled in the eighth. A one-out single chased Horton from the game and brought on Trevin Michael, Oklahoma’s steady closer.
Two more singles off Michael by Justin Bench and Gonzalez tied the game 2-2, and two wild pitches to the next two batters brought in the third and fourth Ole Miss runs.
That was a particularly cruel way for things to unfold for Oklahoma on two fronts.
First, after the Sooners had played such crisp baseball all throughout the postseason, it was jarring to see things come apart due to some sloppy play. That was also a theme in game one of the finals when starting pitcher Jake Bennett had as many wild pitches in one outing as he had all year up to that point.
But also, Michael couldn’t have been any better for the Sooners all season, really, but especially down the stretch. He went into Sunday’s game having given up all of one run in his previous 21.2 innings pitched, which goes all the way back to the Big 12 Tournament.
“That I loved him and I wouldn't want to have anybody else out there,” Johnson said of his message to Michael after the game.
Make no mistake about it; despite falling short of winning a national title, which Johnson makes very clear is the goal of the Oklahoma program each season, the Sooners sent a message about what to expect from them moving forward with their play this season.
Going into the campaign, that was a fair debate to have. In fact, when it was announced last year that Texas and Oklahoma were joining the SEC, few questioned Texas’ ability to jump into the best baseball league in the land and compete right away. Oklahoma was a bit of a different story.
Before this season, the Sooners hadn’t been to Omaha since 2010, with that being the only previous trip going back to 1995, but perhaps more notable than that is how much of a struggle it had been for OU to simply get to regionals with regularity of late.
With the caveat that the 2020 team looked like a clear Big 12 title contender before the season was canceled, OU went into 2022 having not been to the postseason since 2018. The 2019 and 2021 teams didn’t even finish .500 in Big 12 play.
The thought was that Oklahoma would have to work its way back into being a consistent regional team before it could think of national titles, but the inspired run through June that this group made has to change the way the college baseball world thinks about the Sooners.
It’s hard to know what next year will bring for this program. Retooling is inevitable as key pieces like Graham, Horton, Michael, Bennett and Tanner Tredaway move on to their next chapters.
But what we do know is this: Oklahoma is investing in baseball as it recently announced much-needed renovations to L. Dale Mitchell Park, Skip Johnson teams are going to fight and grind to maximize what each team can accomplish and the Sooners can win big, because we just watched them do it.
There was heartbreak in the first base dugout Sunday afternoon, but everything leading up to that point showed that there are plenty of blue skies ahead for this program.
“We made it here, and we accomplished a lot this year,” Horton said. “But we'll be back. I know that because this team laid the foundation for the future of Oklahoma baseball.”