, Muskogee, OK

June 5, 2013

Sooners’ trio ready to go at all times

By John Shinn
CNHI News Service

— NORMAN – Oklahoma’s Ralph Garza Jr., Jacob Evans and Kyle Hayes arrive at the ballpark believing they’re going to pitch. None of them bother to worry themselves with when anymore.

It could be to stop a rally early in a game. It could be in the middle. It could be the ninth inning.

“We’re not confined to one thing, so you always have to be ready,” Hayes said. “You never know who they’re going to go with, so it keeps you on your toes. It could be any of us three at any time or anyone out of the bullpen.”

It’s hard to call any of the three specialists. All of have been asked to do different things at different times. Evans (7-2), the freshman left-hander, has been OU’s closer most of the season. He has nine saves, but his role has expanded beyond getting three outs in the ninth inning.

Garza (5-1) is also a freshman. The right-hander has thrown 58 innings this season but has only two starts under his belt.

Hayes (1-0, two saves) barely saw the mound until the Sooners’ meeting with Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament two weeks ago. Since then, he’s made himself indispensable, logging six shutout innings in three of the Sooners’ last eight games.

If OU’s going to advance to the College World Series, the trio’s fingerprints will be all over the Sooners’ super regional series at LSU, beginning at 6 p.m.,Friday at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

Reliable pitching is the ingredient just about all College World Series teams share. Slugging your way through the NCAA tournament virtually ended when the bats were changed prior to the 2011 season.

Just about every team has an ace starting pitcher and possibly more. The Sooners have that with Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton.

However, the bullpen is where the elite separate from the pack.

During OU’s current eight-game winning streak, which includes the Big 12 tournament and last week’s 3-0 run to the Blacksburg (Va.) Regional title, the bullpen has been the difference.

Garza logged four critical innings in the eventual 12-inning victory over Connecticut. Hayes ended up with the win after holding the Huskies scoreless over the final 2 1-3 innings. He threw another two innings of one-hit ball to help OU claim the regional title against Virginia Tech the following day.

Evans didn’t pitch much in Blacksburg. He was held back because he would have been OU’s starter if it had to play a fourth game. That was because he pitched so well during OU’s Big 12 tournament title game victory over Kansas.

“For most of the season I was the closer, but the postseason is a different. Everyone is on call for whenever they’re needed,” Evans said.

Embracing that fireman’s philosophy has made the group effective. Most pitchers will tell you the easiest thing to do is start a game. They usually know the start is coming several days before. Preparation time is plentiful. Going to start an inning isn’t much of a trick, either. There’s plenty of time to warm up in the bullpen, and you don’t have to worry about base runners unless you put them there.

However, those instances are rare.

“You go in in situations you obviously don’t want to be in,” Garza said. “No one wants to come in with the bases loaded and nobody out. But we’re here for a reason and trust the coach’s decision. They put you in there because they know you can get out of it. It’s gives you a lot of confidence.”

The Sooners have pitched with it over the last two weeks. If it carries over for another week, it just might be enough to punch OU’s ticket to the College World Series.