NORMAN, Okla. — The Sooners, coming off their second straight Super Regional last year, met with the media over the weekend to kick off the 2014 season and it’s safe to say there’s plenty of new faces, but plenty of optimism to go along with it.
New head coach Pete Hughes leads that, bringing in assistants Mike Anderson (hitting) and Jamie Pinzino (pitching).
Out goes No. 3 overall draft pick Jonathan Gray as well as fellow draftee and starter Dillon Overton, as well as position players Jack Mayfield, Max White, Matt Oberste and Garrett Carey, among others.
Returning, however, is a wealth of talent.
“Well, you know, we have guys like Ralph Garza and Jacob Evans, those guys [have] 30 appearances,” Hughes said. “That’s a heck of a lot of experience. Those guys are battle tested now. You got to make the decision are they more valuable for you for 30, 31 games or are they more valuable for you for 17 games. And we’re in the midst of determining that right now, and it’s always the age old question to me is he more valuable out of the pen where he can win three or four games for you in a week or just throw him out there on Friday night and get set to throw him for the week and weekend.
“So, we’re trying to establish those roles, but we do have the luxury of having a lot of guys, like you said, [that] have a lot of experience for us last year.”
Craig Aikin, Taylor Alspaugh, Hunter Haley and Colt Bickerstaff return for an outfield that loses captain White.
On the infield, there’s probably a lot more uncertainty.
Still, probably the most veteran guy on the club is there.
“I do know Hector’s [Lorenzana] going to get locked in at second base because I think it’s the most important position in college baseball,” Hughes said. “When you got a guy that can turn a double play no matter where the throw is, you’re going to get two outs on one play, that’s where the value begins and ends. And he’s as good as I’ve seen at turning the double play, and that’s the most important play defensively in baseball. So, Hector will be second.”
The rest there is up for grabs.
“Right now I’d say [Niko] Buentello would play first base and mix in there with Austin O’Brien,” Hughes said. “And Anthony Hermelyn is very adept defensively. On his days off he can go there. Mac James has come along in the catching position to be able to free up Anthony and not ask Anthony to catch over 50 games. I think in itself that’s going to help him become a better offensive player for us. Then, you got Josh Ake, who’s a junior college transfer who’s battling for the shortstop position. Sheldon Neuse—I wouldn’t have said this in the fall, but I will say it now—can play shortstop for us.
“You know, and Kolbey Carpenter and Sheldon are battling for third base, so…And Keach Ballard is another junior college infielder who can play all three infield positions. So, these guys are talented and we’re deep in the infield. And it starts with pitching and defense, throwing strikes and defense. I think we’re pretty sound there.”
Speaking of the pitching rotation, without Gray and Overton it’s likely Ralph Garza Jr. and Jacob Evans step into huge roles.
“I am only watching what my eyes can see, and I can look at the stats from last year. Those two guys were shut down some of the time, so they were building up arm strength in the fall so really not fair for me to evaluate those guys in the fall until late in the fall. As far as their stuff, those guys have really good stuff and love to compete. First and foremost that’s the first thing to look at. Those guys love to have the ball in their hand. You can tell they love to compete, they love the heat of the battle. That’s what makes them special. That’s what makes them members of our baseball program.
“And along with that competitive spirit, they got good stuff and they’re strike throwing machines. So, I do know this: Our pitching staff will throw a lot of strikes and we will play very, very good defense. And any time you’re not giving people extra runners in the form of a walk or an error, you have a chance to win games. So, you know, those guys are pretty impressive to me, especially their ability to compete and throw strikes.”
Even with all the new faces and uncertainty around the diamond, the goal still remains the same.
Take it from Lorenzana, now a senior.
“Yeah, we were really close [last year],” Lorenzana said. “But, I mean, unfortunately I’m not like a Max [White] or Jack Mayfield who’s been to Omaha so that’s my dream. I want to get to Omaha and all these guys as well. But I haven’t done it yet, so all I know is the stories from Max and Jack and all the guys that have. So, I’m hungry for it and I want these guys to be hungry for it, and I can honestly say that we’re all ready and we’re all motivated to reach that goal.”
The Sooners open up the season with a three-game set Feb. 14-16 at L. Dale Mitchell Park against Seton Hall, game one starting at 3 p.m. CT Friday, with Saturday’s and Sunday’s games slated for 2 p.m. CT and 1 p.m. CT, respectively.
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