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There's no better way to get a handle on a team than to ask someone who's been watching them all year. We chatted with Jordan Esco of Crimson & Cream Machine to find out about the Sooners and their excellent starting pitchers.
PodKATT: Easily the big highlight of this team is projected 1st rounder Jonathan Gray. By the numbers, he appears to be a lethal strike thrower. For an audience who hasn't seen a pitch of OU baseball this year, what is a typical Gray outing like?
Jordan Esco: Well, I'm sure for a guy who could be the No. 1 overall draft pick by the time this is published (at worst No. 2 overall by virtually every draft projection I've seen/read) the word dominance won't surprise anyone even if they've never seen him pitch. One of the things that makes Gray so special is that he gets stronger as the game goes on. On multiple occasions this season, his fastball has been clocked in the upper 90's, even hitting triple digits (which he does fairly regularly), in eighth and/or ninth innings. That's just not typical for college pitchers, let alone guys not named Justin Verlander.
What's amazing is as elite as his fastball can be, he's been criticized at times this year for not using it enough. On occasion he has a tendency to rely on his slider, which is also a plus pitch per MLB scouts, or his change-up, but this has occurred much less since the coaches allowed OU's catcher to start calling his own pitches rather than looking to the dugout every time for the call.
Being a strikeout pitcher (138 Ks in 119 innings), he is susceptible to getting that pitch count up higher than you'd like in the earlier innings, but he's certainly no stranger to a 100+ pitch outing. He's more than earned the benefit of the doubt, so unless he's just getting shelled early the OU coaches will give him every opportunity to work out of any trouble.
Typically if you don't get to him early then you're not getting to him because as I've described, he just has a unique ability to get stronger as the game goes along.
PK: It doesn't take a very long look at the stat sheet to see that Dillon Overton is the clear #2 starter. His walk to strike out ratio isn't as great as Gray's but they both seem to keep extra base hits to a minimum. How far of a gap is there between Overton and Gray?
JE: As far as a gap in that Gray is a potential No. 1 overall pick and Overton probably won't go in the first round, but should be selected in the top three rounds. During his career and including last year even with Gray on the roster, Dillon Overton had been this team's unquestioned ace. He certainly doesn't have the elite stuff like or ability to get strikeouts like Gray, but then again few do.
I wouldn't go so far as to call Overton a finesse pitcher, but he's also just not a guy who is going to rear back and throw his fastball by you. He'll stay pretty consistently in the low 90's to upper 80's with his fastball, but it's more about where he's placing it than the number on the radar gun. He's a guy who excels at hitting his spots on both corners and throws several different pitches all with the same proficiency which makes him difficult to hit. He has a smooth, easy delivery which helps with his consistency to find the strike zone and avoid wasted effort on the mound.
Admittedly it's a bit of a cliche, but one of his biggest assets is his experience. As I said, he's been OU's ace for the previous three years so he's very much used to pitching in big games. And with a possible elimination game looming Saturday, depending of course on Friday's outcome, he won't be overwhelmed by the moment.
PK: Looking at the schedule, OU has some losses against some good non-conference foes (Dallas Baptist, Notre Dame) and a couple of head scratchers (UT-Arlington, UA-LR). When things go wrong for the Sooners, what is usually the cause?
JE: In a word, offense.
If Oklahoma fans haven't already started a petition to remove and then never scheduled Dallas Baptist again they should. DBU has flat out owned the Sooners over the last couple years and it's become a major source of frustration for OU baseball fans. The UT-Arlington and UALR games are simply unexplainable or better yet inexcusable.
There is an argument to be made for a third starter behind Gray and Overton as well, which something they've definitely struggled to find pretty much all year. Which if this series gets to Sunday should bode somewhat well for you, but much like the offense this issue seems to be something they appear close to resolving at the best possible time. Between the Big 12 Tournament and the Blacksburg Regional, Oklahoma's Jake Fisher has pitched well in that No. 3 spot and the Sooners have a deep bullpen when needed, so a third start can turn into more of a group effort.
But when this team has struggled the most it's been because of their inability to score runs. For extended periods of time this past season, they were simply incapable of getting that timely hit when they needed it. Whether it was just a bunt to move a guy into scoring position or bringing that runner home, the offense has struggled mightily at times. If you can forgive the "Captain Obviousness" of this statement, if OU is swinging and missing early it could be a very long day. This team, and really OU teams of recent years, has a tendency to rack up way too many strikeouts. It's one thing to be aggressive at the plate, but it's another entirely to just swing at pitches you have very little chance of making contact with and even less of a chance doing anything with even if you do make contact.
This coaching staff is very much a proponent of 'small ball' so if they get a runner on in the first inning, do not be surprised to see them try and bunt him over. It's certainly not an approach that is unique to this Oklahoma team as with the removal of aluminum bats from the college game, many teams have been forced to adjust their approach to scoring runs.
PK: The Sooner lineup has 2 guys that stand out from the pack: Matt Oberste for his power numbers and Craig Aikin for the bunts. Where do they typically bat in the lineup and what's the typical offensive strategy for this team?
JE: You may or may not be surprised to hear that both have actually spent time in the leadoff spot this year. Obviously much less so with respect to Aikin who is your traditional leadoff type of hitter, but Head Coach Sunny Golloway put Oberste in the spot for a decent stretch during the latter part of the regular season.
At the time, Oberste was struggling a little bit and for whatever reasons (OU fans have given up trying to figure out Golloway and why he does what he does) OU's slugger found himself batting at the top of the order. To both their credit, the move worked and Oberste started to hit again like he did in the early part of the season. Oberste has since been moved back down into the cleanup spot, so that's where you should see him this weekend.
As far as Aikin goes, he's your prototypical leadoff guy who will do just about anything to get on and can turn a walk/single into a triple with his speed and ability to steal bases. Oklahoma hasn't been as aggressive, with Aikin or in general, on the base paths as they've been in years past, but when they do run they are efficient. If there is any criticism with Aikin it would be his tendency to get picked off, whether on first or second base. He's just a freshman so he's still learning the finer points of how to play at this level, but he's been picked off at second multiple times this year which is just inexcusable.
PK: Any lingering injuries plaguing the Sooners this weekend?
JE: Other than just the wear and tear from a 60 plus game season, this team is about as healthy as it could be. Pitcher Adam Choplick has dealt with some arm issues during the regular season, but he'd be a middle reliever and he's yet to throw an inning this postseason so there impact there is minimal at best. Outfielder Hunter Haley has missed the last couple weeks with a leg injury I believe, but Taylor Alspaugh took over for him in right field and I think the coaches really like what he's done since he's come in, especially defensively, so even if Haley is available I don't expect a change there.
PK: Two outs, bottom of the ninth, down by one, win or go home. Who do you want at bat?
JE: Wow, that's a tough question. I suppose it would be a good thing to have the problem of having to decide between multiple guys. We've talked about Oberste and on paper I suppose he'd be the most obvious choice, but I'm debating between two other guys who we've yet to discuss. Center fielder Max White and second baseman Hector Lorenzana would be the two guys at the top of my list.
White is a senior and team captain and been through so many battles over the course of his career. I couldn't begin to count the number of times he has come through for this team and on experience alone he'd have to be considered.
Lorenzana is a junior college guy in his first year at Oklahoma, but has come up with the clutch hit for this OU team several times this year already. And hits in really big spots where no one in the Sooners lineup is doing anything, but he'll deliver that big hit at the best possible time.
I'm not going to wuss out and pick two, so if I had to decide between those two.....man, this is tough. I'm going to go with White just because I've seen him do it so many times over the course of his career. Plus, if OU needed a home run in this scenario White is the more likely of the two with better power. So yeah, White's my guy.
PK: Do you see the Sooners going to Omaha?
JE: I hate to put this kind of stipulation on it, but in my opinion if it's going to happen they have to win Friday night. It's just so deflating for this team any time Gray takes the mound and they don't come out of it with a victory. Obviously LSU won't be sending out a slouch to battle with him, but that Friday game is key.
Now don't take that to mean if the Sooners do lose Friday they should just back their bags and head back to Norman. This team has shown the resolve to battle back from behind be it in the scoreboard or in the win/loss column, but winning Friday would clearly make things much easier for them.
As good as I believe Gray and Overton to be, it's just very difficult for me to see OU coming in and sweeping the first two games. LSU is hosting for a reason and while OU's two starters are more than capable of winning Friday and Saturday, I think expecting something like that is setting yourself up for disappointment.
From an Oklahoma stand point of course, I think the key to this series will be the OU offense. Unless the wheels just fall off, we pretty much know what to expect from the pitching, either starting or in the bullpen, so Oklahoma's ability to put runs on the board or lack there of will be the determining factor for me.
So barring an LSU sweep, that would mean I see this coming down to Sunday. As I alluded to above, OU's No. 3 starter issues have been somewhat resolved with the emergence of Jake Fisher. If you're asking me to go with my head, I'd say OU will give the Tigers everything they can handle but that LSU would have just enough of an edge to win it in three. If you're asking me to go with my heart, I'd say there's just something about this OU team that has an Omaha feel to it. Many an OU fan, myself included, has been down on them at times this year, but with their front end rotation if they can put runs on the board they're very, very dangerous.
I guess call me a homer, but I'll go with heart over head and the Sooners in three.
Win or lose, I expect it to be a fun, competitive (I hope anyway) series and am very much looking forward to it. I'd wish you all luck, but I think we both know I'd be lying. So here's to no one getting hurt, a hard fought series, and may the better team come out on top.
Read more about the Sooners at Crimson & Cream Machine