Oklahoma State Enters NCAA Tournament Riding Momentum
Through the end of April, Oklahoma State had experienced what could reasonably be described as an up-and-down season.
After getting swept by Texas Tech in their final series of April, the Cowboys were 25-16 overall and 10-8 in the Big 12. They were a perfectly solid team that was going to be in regionals, but probably weren’t an outfit most would have expected to make a deep postseason run.
Fast forward to May, and OSU is now one of the hottest teams in college baseball. It began the month with a road sweep of Oregon State, and then continued by going 4-1 against archrival Oklahoma and Baylor, winning both series. Then, the Cowboys finished a push to the postseason with a Big 12 Tournament title last week in Oklahoma City.
That sweep at the hands of Texas Tech now feels like a distant memory, but coach Josh Holiday said it’s what spurred Oklahoma State on this run.
“The fact that we had a responsive gene in us after Lubbock,” Holliday said. “The fact that we could have gotten down about getting swept, acted miserable or felt sorry about ourselves. We chose not to do that. We focused on getting better.”
Get better the Cowboys did, and with what they’ve proven over the last month, it’s clear that this is absolutely a team with the goods to end up playing baseball in Omaha next month. The selection committee seeded them No. 9 overall and matched their regional up with Texas Tech, a potential familiar foe in super regionals.
It’s easy to see improvement on the mound as a key piece of the puzzle in that turnaround.
Righthander Jensen Elliott has seen his ERA drop from 4.76 after allowing seven earned runs in two innings against Texas Tech to 3.59 after his six shutout innings against Baylor in Oklahoma City. In starts against Oregon State, Oklahoma and two against Baylor going into the postseason, he’s allowed five earned runs in 31 innings, good for a 1.45 ERA.
But it’s not just Elliott who has led the way. Lefthander Parker Scott, after serving in a relief role early on, has emerged as a solid piece in the rotation. Last week against Texas Christian, he held the Horned Frogs to four hits and one run over six innings in a 5-2 Oklahoma State victory.
Righthander Brett Standlee used the conference tournament to bounce back from that Texas Tech series in a different way. Unlike Elliott and Scott, who both immediately turned things around after the weekend in Lubbock, he’d been struggling since then, lasting just 3.1 innings and two innings in starts against Oregon State and Oklahoma, respectively.
But the righthander’s gem in the tournament title game, when he threw seven innings against West Virginia, giving up seven hits and one run, was a step in the right direction at exactly the right time.
“It’s all about working to get better after each start,” Standlee said. “There is always something you can improve on. I think Coach (Rob) Walton and I, we really worked on it. You know, you’re going to have bad days, but you just need to make sure they don’t last.”
Offensively, you know what you’re going to get with Oklahoma State. Just about every hitter in that lineup can go yard at any moment. Center fielder Trevor Boone, with 19 home runs, and DH Colin Simpson, who Holliday describes as the best power hitter to play in Stillwater in quite some time, are chief among them.
Sure, going hand-in-hand with all of those home runs are big strikeout numbers, and matched up against the wrong pitcher, that could be a real problem. But Holliday and his team aren’t altogether worried about it.
“We’ve chosen not to dwell on that all year long, and we’re not going to start now,” Holliday said. “You are the team that you are. You have to make good decisions about which pitches to swing at.”
As the season wound down, playing a regional at home motivated this team. It goes without saying that every team in the country wants to host a regional, but it took on a little extra meaning for Oklahoma State given that this is the last season at venerable Allie P. Reynolds Stadium before O’Brate Stadium opens for the 2020 season.
“That was something that was maybe thrown out there as a little bit of a nugget three or four or five weeks ago (to) plant a positive seed and try to grow it in (the players’) minds,” Holliday said. “So in the back of the kids’ minds all along that’s something that they wanted.”
The Cowboys held up their end of the bargain, as they find themselves hosting. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas about those games being played in Stillwater.
The state of Oklahoma has been pounded by bad weather this spring, including several nights of severe storms last week, and as a result, the playing surface at Allie P. was not going to be ready for prime time.
Instead, Oklahoma State is hosting in Oklahoma City at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, the same place where it just celebrated its tournament title. If nothing else, that is a place where the team should feel very comfortable right now.
“We’re thankful that Oklahoma City is giving us a chance to host this great tournament in a ballpark and a setting that will be awesome,” Holliday said in a release. “As much as we’d love to play here (in Stillwater), we’re very much looking forward to playing at a place where we have great memories.”
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Coming to OKC for the regional are No. 2 seed Connecticut, an at-large team out of the American Athletic Conference, No. 3 seed Nebraska, an at-large from the Big Ten, and No. 4 seed Harvard, the Ivy League champion.
Each of the top two teams in the field present challenges. UConn has been up and down this season, but an opening weekend series win against Louisville shows its high-end potential. It’s good news for the Cowboys that the Huskies will likely feel compelled to use lefthander Mason Feole, an alumnus of USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, in their opening game.
The Huskers, meanwhile, have been playing well of late. They won home series against Arizona State and Michigan to end the regular season, and then reached the final of the Big Ten Tournament before falling to Ohio State. To make things tougher, Nebraska fans travel famously well, and it’s to be expected that there will be plenty of red in the stands at all times, even in games against the hosting Cowboys.
But with the way it has been playing of late, and with the benefit of playing in front of huge partisan crowds that may also be in town to see the school’s softball team compete in the Women’s College World Series, Oklahoma State will go into the weekend as prohibitive favorites to move on to a super regional.
The last time it did that, in 2016, the Cowboys came one win away from the CWS championship series. There are a lot of steps to take from here if they want to get there again, but that type of run is certainly on the table, and that’s quite the difference from where this team was a month ago.