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Under The Radar: Oklahoma Off To Fast Start Behind Rebuilt Rotation

When you lose nine players to the draft, including your whole starting outfield and three of your top four starting pitchers, there will be some uncertainty about what can be expected with the team that returns to campus after all of that roster attrition.

So far, Oklahoma, which lost outfielders Cade Harris, Kyler Murray and All-American Steele Walker and starting pitchers Jake Irvin, Devon Perez and Kyle Tyler, are handling it about as well as could be expected.

Coming out of a four-game sweep of Columbia, Oklahoma is 11-2 with a solid sweep of Cal Poly and a 2-1 weekend at the Tony Gwynn Legacy tournament under its belt.

“I think it's guys being in control of themselves,” Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson said of the catalyst behind the quick start. “We lost a lot of guys from last year, and you always worry about the younger guys coming in, if they can maintain the focus level and be in control of themselves. That’s what they’ve done so far, and it’s what I’ve been really pleased with.”

There was plenty of intrigue mixed with that uncertainty surrounding Oklahoma’s projected starting rotation coming into the season.

There was one known quantity, and that was the presence of righthander Nathan Wiles, a returning weekend starter who went 7-3, 3.54 a year ago, but with righthander Cade Cavalli and lefthander Levi Prater slotting in around him, there were questions.

Cavalli was a prominent recruit, but the two-way player last year threw just 17 innings as a freshman and command was a consistent issue. Would he be able to curb those command issues, harness his stuff and hold down a spot on the weekend?

Prater was effective in 2018, albeit primarily as a reliever. He moved into the rotation late last season and showed promise, but it was a fair question to ask how he would handle a permanent move into that role.

So far, that pair has answered every question about their viability in the rotation, and matched with the steady Wiles, they have given the Sooners outstanding work.

Cavalli has set the tone well on Fridays, sporting a 1.04 ERA across his 17.1 innings in three starts. With 15 strikeouts and opponents hitting just .197 against him, his stuff is clearly still there, but most important given his history, he’s walked just five batters.

Wiles has a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings of work, with his best outing coming in what might be Oklahoma’s best win to this point, a taut 1-0 win over San Diego State in their second game of the tournament in San Diego. He threw seven shutout innings, giving up four hits and three walks with ten strikeouts.

It’s been a smooth transition for Prater as well with a 1.62 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 16.2 innings of work. For that matter, 6-foot-7 freshman righthander Ben Abram has been quite good in a midweek role. He’s punched out 16 and walked none with a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings.

Long story short, it’s going well.

“It’s new to Cade, even though he’s got dynamic stuff,” Johnson said. “He’s electric. Just getting him buying into making sure his routines are his lifeline and trying to get him in those routines even though he is an everyday player as well. It’s trying to get him accustomed to that as we go through the rest of the year.

“Levi started at the end of the year last year, even though he had a lot of appearances for us out of the bullpen. The thing with Levi is he’s very competitive, and sometimes it hurts him and sometimes it helps him. He’s always going to be that guy that is going to be competitive.”

Oklahoma has gotten good work from the bullpen as well, an important piece of the puzzle when you consider that this group lost Austin Hansen and Connor Berry to the draft, Braidyn Fink to injury prior to the season, and Prater and Cavalli to a move to the rotation.

Jason Ruffcorn, a transfer righthander from Texas A&M who had his eligibility waiver approved for this season at the last minute, has a 2.45 ERA and three saves while leading the team in appearances with seven. Freshman righthander Wyatt Olds and sophomore righthander Aaron Brooks each have six appearances and have allowed just one run each.

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Offensively, the quest to replace the production of Murray, Walker and Harris has been led by first baseman Tyler Hardman.

A highly regarded recruit upon arriving on campus prior to last season, Hardman had his share of struggles as a freshman and hit .207/.273/.324 and struck out in 28.83 percent of his plate appearances. So far this season, he’s a different player, hitting .377/.414/.698 with three doubles, four home runs and 22 RBIs.

“I think the mental game has helped him a lot, as much as anything,” Johnson said. “He was really highly touted out of high school, struggled here, kind of hit rock bottom, so to speak, at the end of the year, really kept working on his approach, really worked on his mental game, understood that.”

The other, perhaps more surprising, offensive catalyst has been shortstop Brandon Zaragoza. Previously known for his defensive work, now he’s showing signs of making a leap with the bat and is currently hitting .383/.508/.404. Somewhat counterintuitively, his breakout might be coming because he’s really doubled down on his defense.

“The biggest thing he can do is not worry about the bat,” Johnson said. “Just go play defense. When you’re playing defense, that’s all you have to do, and the bat is only a secondary deal. And you focus so much on defense that the bat ends up coming on.”

While things have gone smoothly in many ways, there is still some tooling to be done as Oklahoma looks for answers at other positions, primarily in the outfield, where they had those three high-profile voids to fill.

So far, they have cycled six different players in and out of the starting lineup in the outfield—Tanner Treadway, Jordan Vujovich, Blake Brewster, Milan Walla, Brady Harlan and Diego Muniz. It’s an obvious area where there will be continued competition.

The Sooners were not a projected regional team coming into the season, and while it’s too early to clearly see the impact of the wins they’ve gathered so far on their overall postseason profile, by winning such a high percentage of their early season games, they’ve set themselves up for success in that regard.

The Big 12 Conference always provides a number of resume-building opportunities, and on top of that, the Sooners go on the road more often than you would assume a program of their stature does in the non-conference slate, which will give them some RPI bonuses for road wins along the way. Oklahoma is doing that this week, with a swing through Texas for a midweek game at Dallas Baptist (which the Sooners lost Wednesday night) and a weekend series at Rice.

That’s certainly not by accident.

“The RPI deal is, in our conference, always going to be a high agenda (item) for us, and then playing quality teams that you know are going to make you understand (that) you have to work on little details in your game, much more than anything else,” Johnson said.

Last season, Johnson took a veteran Oklahoma team to regionals in his first season. Now, with a rebuilt roster, he’s trying to get the Sooners back to that level.

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