For almost 12 consecutive weeks, nationally ranked Oklahoma sat atop the Big 12 baseball standings. All that had changed by the time Sunny Golloway's Sooners paid a visit to the place they like to call the Little Apple (Manhattan, Kan.) for a three-game showdown series on the conference's final weekend of the regular season that would determine the 2013 Big 12 champion.
Kansas State added to the Sooners month-long woes and actually contributed the final nail ending OU's 2013 championship hopes, taking two of three in the series with the visitors from Oklahoma. As a matter of full disclosure, however, OU's troubles started long before they limped into Manhattan.
The Crimson and Cream's once comfortable conference lead had been slowly dwindling for several weeks, and the Sooners' finally slipped off the league's top perch after losing two of three in the fiercely competitive Bedlam rivalry series with Oklahoma State the first weekend in May.
The Sooners lost nine of their final 12 games in the regular season, including three straight series against Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. This definitely does not bode well for a team with postseason aspirations and the team picked by the league coaches as the preseason favorite to win the conference.
Instead of peaking, which is where the best teams prefer to be at this point in the season, Oklahoma found itself plummeting and in peril of missing out on the postseason all together. A funny thing happened, however, when it came time for the Big 12 Baseball Championship.
OU's fall from grace in the Big 12 baseball race didn't stop at second or third place. The Sooners' troubles during the month of May (seven losses in 10 games) dropped them all the way to fourth and the No. 4 seed in the conference postseason championship tournament. Oklahoma actually was tied with West Virginia for third place, both with 13-11 records in the conference, but West Virginia was awarded the tiebreaker and the three seed in the conference tournament because it won the regular-season series with the Sooners.
At their home away from home at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, just a 20-minute drive from the Norman campus, the Sooners played like the champions they were expected to be all season. A complete game, three-hit shutout by OU ace Jonathan Gray propelled the Sooners to a 2-0 opening-game win over Baylor. That was followed the next day by anm 8-0 whitewashing of eight-seed Texas Tech.
Those two tournament victories were not all that surprising. What they did, however, was set up another showdown with league champion Kansas State, with the winner assured of a spot in the tournament championship final. The Sooners' were anxious for another shot at the Wildcats and looking for a measure of revenge from the two games and the conference crown K-State took from OU the week before.
Much like the series opener between the two teams in Manhattan the week before, Oklahoma jumped out to an early lead, only to see the top-seeded Wildcats claw their way back to tie the score at five apiece and send the game to extra frames. Both teams tallied a run in the 10th, but the Sooners pushed across what proved to be the winning run in the 11th for a 7-6 victory.
As everyone knows by now, Oklahoma downed surprising Kansas for the Big 12 Championship on Sunday, extending its current winning streak to five games and earning the Big 12's automatic bid to the NCAA Baseball Championship. The Sooners wore light blue t-shirts, the color of the Oklahoma state flag, in Sunday's championship game, honoring the families and victims affected by the monstrous May 20 storm that ravaged the nearby community of Moore, just north of Norman.
Golloway's 40-win crimson crew is on its way this week to Virginia - for the third time in the last four seasons in the NCAA Baseball Tournament - where the Sooners are the No, 2 seed in the Blacksburg Regional. Oklahoma is making its 36th NCAA appearance in baseball, and in two of the past three seasons, the Sooners have advanced to the super -regionals, which determine the eight-team field for the College World Series.
"We have been together all year," said senior outfielder Max White after the Sooners' Big 12 Championship victory over Kansas. "We are a great team, and we have great defense, pitching and hitting. These last few weeks our bats have struggled, but we have been able to figure it out this week."
The question that most Sooner fans are wondering is: Which OU team will show up in the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners certainly have a capable offense, led by junior designated hitter Matt Oberste, who led the Big 12 in five offensive categories this season. OU was third in the conference in hitting with a team average of .283 in all games. The Sooners also were second, behind Kansas State in run production, averaging 5.5 runs a game.
Oklahoma's strength all season long, however, has been its weekend pitching, featuring two of the best in the conference in right-handed starter Jonathan Gray and southpaw Dillon Overton. Overton just returned to action a little over a week ago after being out several weeks with an arm injury. This is clearly good news for OU, and it is coming at just the right time. It was just after Overton went down with an injury that the Sooners began their struggles over the final weeks of the regular season.
OU will have to find a way to get by host Virginia Tech on its home field, but the Sooners have already proved they can win on the road in the NCAA Regionals, capturing the Charlottesville (Va.) Regional twice in the last three years.
Let's hope that Max White was right and that the Sooners have indeed figured things out. If not, their postseason run will be short and not so sweet.