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February 13, 2014

Hughes: 'We will play very, very good defense'

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There's no easy solution. The void is going to be there.

Jonathan Gray, Dillon Overton, and Jake Fisher combined for nearly half (22) of Oklahoma's 43 wins a season ago. Try No. 3 overall selection, $4.8 million signing bonus big when talking about replacing Gray. His 147 strikeouts ranked No. 2 nationally spread across a team-leading 126.1 innings, while Overton (91) and Fisher (51) rank No. 2 and No. 3 on the team, respectively.

It's no small feat for first-year head coach Pete Hughes replacing that type of production.

Fortunately Hughes has options. Multiple options at that. 12 from the right side. Five more from the left. 17 in total.

"We've got plenty of new guys capable of stepping up and filling the shoes that were left behind for them," said sophomore catcher Anthony Hermelyn. "I don't think they are scared of filling those shoes left for them, either."


Depth shouldn't be an issue when it comes to Oklahoma's pitching staff in 2013-14. You can be sure of that.

How it all shakes out will be the question. Combining for a 17-3 record, eight of the 17 hurlers on the Sooners opening day roster return with innings under their belt from a season ago. However, only four of those 17 return with having ever made a start at the Division I level.

"It's as deep of a pitching staff as I've ever coached with quality," endorsed Hughes.

What we do know is the Sooners opening weekend rotation is set. Three underclassmen will be given the ball starting with LHP Jacob Evans locked in for the Friday afternoon opener.

Saturday the ball will be given to redshirt sophomore LHP Adam Choplick, with true freshman RHP Jake Elliott getting the nod on Sunday. Evans jumps into the Friday night role left by Gray after making all 30 of his appearances as a freshman from the bullpen throwing 52.1 innings, striking out 41 (No. 4 on team), and earning freshman All-American honors.

For Choplick, it's a shot at redemption after starting last season in position for the Sooners No. 3 starting job before being moved to midweek starter and eventually being shutdown by injury just 10 starts into the year. Elliott makes his career debut on Sunday after parlaying a successful fall campaign with an even better start to his first spring in Norman.

So much so it had his head coach dishing out superlatives of the 6-foot-7 left-handed pitcher at the Sooners Media Day less than two weeks before Opening Day.

"Jake Elliott has been outstanding. (In) his last outing last weekend I don't want to say it was 'Big 12 ready' because I don't know anything about the Big 12 but he would certainly have been 'ACC ready' in my mind," said Hughes.

Returning as the team leader in innings (58.1) is sophomore RHP Ralph Garza Jr.

"It's always the age old question for me. Is he more valuable out of the bullpen, where he can win three or four games for us in a week? Or just throw him out there on Friday night and set the tone for the week and the weekend?," said Hughes.

Garza's March 26 start versus Oral Roberts offers reason to think the New Braunfels (Texas) native would be more useful as the latter tossing a complete-game and striking out 11 Golden Eagles in just his second career start.

For now the choice will likely mean Garza Jr., staying put in the bullpen where he enjoyed a successful rookie campaign posting a 5-1 record and finishing the year with 38 strikeouts and a 2.76 ERA.

"I think that game really turned my season around and a lot of the time when I try to look back at things I was doing mechanics wise or see what I was doing right, that's the game I look back to," said Garza.

Joining him in a relief role from the right side are seniors Kindle Ladd (13 APP. 24.2 IP 3.65 ERA), Kyle Hayes (1-0 17 app. 3.23 ERA), and redshirt senior Drew Krittenbrink. Hayes left his mark on the Sooners postseason run recording a pair of saves in back-to-back days of the Big 12 Tournament, Robert Tasin looks to expand his role after throwing just 13.2 innings as a redshirt sophomore.

As does redshirt sophomore RHP Corey Coppping and Wister (Okla.) freshman RHP Tyler Gibson. Both of whom will compete for innings as a starter during midweek match-ups. Copping made four starts a season ago, striking out 12 over 15.2 innings.

Sophomore transfer Jeffery Curan brings his talents to the Sooner State after a throwing a 9-2 record on the board at Fullerton College.

Freshman LHP Octavio Rodriguez who was a two-time Perfect Game All-American is expected to contribute as well. At 6-foot-5, 205-pound Rodriguez compiled over 200-career strikeouts at Franklin High School in El Paso (Texas) earning Collegiate Baseball's honor as All-El Paso Pitcher of the Year 2013.

"Our pitching staff will throw a lot of strikes and we will play very, very good defense. Anytime you aren't giving people extra runners in the form of a walk or an error you have a chance to win a game," said Hughes.


Key Losses: Garrett Carey, Jack Mayfield, Matt Oberste
Key Additions: Sheldon Neuse, Keach Ballard, Austin O'Brien, Niko Buentello, Joshua Ake

CATCHER - Anthony Hermelyn (Sophomore), Mac James (Junior), Dylan Neal (Senior)
Analysis: After catching 48 games behind the dish in 2012-13, Anthony Hermelyn will get some relief during the midweek from Mac James. Something of which the freshman All-American believes will spill over into helping his offensive production at the plate. "Catching 50-plus games last year really takes a toll on your body and Mac James has made huge steps forward as far as his catching ability this year," said Hermelyn. "I really feel like we're going to make for a good team back." In a pinch senior Dylan Neal can also be used as the Sooners battery.
FIRST BASE - Niko Buentello (Freshman), Austin O'Brien (Freshman), Anthony Hermelyn (Sophomore)
Analysis: When Matt Oberste opted to test the Major League Baseball waters it left a hole at firstbase. Niko Buentello is an option. Standing at 6-foot-3, 210-pounds the Lewisville (Texas) product comes after spending his summer playing in the Connie Mack World Series for D-Bat. O'Brien heads to Norman on the heels of a decorated high school career winning the Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Owasso. Friend and fellow Tulsan Jacob Evans has been playing O'Brien since middle school,"He bring a huge bat," said Evans in a quick scouting report of the Louisville Slugger All-American. "I've faced him since I was 10 years old. He's always been that guy with the power bat on his team and he really has a good approach on the at the plate." Mac James emergence behind the plate gives way to Hermelyn being able to slide down the first baseline, during the midweek while keeping his stick in the line-up.
SECOND BASE - Hector Lorenzana(Senior)
Analysis: When his team needed a base hit. He delivered. When they needed a diving stop in the hole. You bet, no problem. "I kind of love hitting in moments when the pressure is on and there are runners in scoring position," said Lorenzana after hitting .333 over the course of the Sooners four-game championship run through Oklahoma City. "I love hitting. I kind of use that to build into this year." Which shouldn't be a problem after being selected as an All-Blacksburg Regional performer as well as a All-Super Regional selection in Baton Rouge. Lorenzana returns to a home at second base where he committed just four errors in 64 games a season ago. "He's as good as I've seen turning the double-play," said Hughes. "I think it's the most important position in college baseball. (Especially) when you get a guy that can turn a double-play no matter where the throw is. Keach Ballard, a JUCO transfer from Murray State, has the ability to play any of the four infield positions but should be a viable candidate to relieve Lorenzana.
SHORTSTOP - Kolbey Carpenter (Sophomore), Sheldon Neuse (Freshman), Joshua Ake (Junior), Keach Ballard (Junior)
Analysis: It is here you will find the most competitive battle for playing time. Junior college transfer Joshua Ake has made quite an impression, but perhaps it's been freshman Sheldon Neuse that has made the most noise. A Keller (Texas) Fossil Ridge product Neuse is described by teammates as your prototypical five-tool player. "He's a five-tool guy. He hits for power. Has speed. Has a great arm," said Lorenzana. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a couple of players shuffled in the '6' defensive hole before Hughes and staff settle on an everyday starter. "There's like three guys that can play short. I've never said that in my coaching career," said Hughes. "I tell our guys this on a weekly basis and I'm not over-talking but it's the best defensive infield with depth and ability that I've ever coached.". Rounding out the shortstop battle is sophomore Kolbey Carpenter after spending time at first base behind Oberste a season ago.
THIRD BASE - Kolbey Carpenter(Sophomore), Sheldon Neuse (Freshman)
Analysis:Following the departure of Garrett Carey, it appears the race for the job at the 'hot corner' has turned into a two-man race. Carpenter biggest area of focus will be keeping his strikeout number down after fanning a team-leading 40 times as a freshman. What struck me as eye-opening was the fact that Neuse talents are more than just on the physical side of the game. "His baseball mind is off the charts I've seen him do somethings as a freshman that I haven't seen seniors be smart enough to do out there on the baseball field," said Hermelyn.
OUTFIELD - Craig Aikin (Sophomore), Hunter Haley (Sophomore), Cody Thomas(Freshman), Colt Bickerstaff (Sophomore), Taylor Alspaugh (RS Junior)
Analysis: Surely the talk of the outfield is a well-known figure to the Crimson Corner message board. Having officially traded the helmet and pads- even if it is for just a couple weeks- this weekend could be the first action Sooner fans will get to see Cody Thomas in action. With five guys battling for three positions, you can virtually count freshman All-American Craig Aikin as a starter in centerfield- already. Catching on fire late is redshirt junior Taylor Alspaugh who took advantage of playing time at the end of the Sooners season making eight of his nine starts during the postseason. Bickerstaff comes off a freshman campaign that he would like to forget appearing in 29 games at both of the corner outfield positions. Lastly is sophomore Hunter Haley. Despite being slowed down by an ankle injury towards the end of the season, Haley managed to tie for the team in triples (4) while batting .264 in 48 appearances. Will be interesting to keep an eye on Thomas as spring football gets underway in just less than one month.

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