Back in business
Oral Roberts returns to Summit League, contention
Oral Roberts ruled the Summit League with an iron fist for years, winning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament 15 years in a row from 1998 to 2012. Then the Golden Eagles left for the Southland Conference, which figured to help them in the RPI and give them a chance to earn at-large bids even if they failed to win the conference tournament. But ORU slumped to a 25-32 overall record in 2013 to miss the postseason for the first time in ages, then went 30-26 overall and 15-15 in the conference in 2014 to finish ninth in the conference standings, leaving them at home for regionals again.
Now ORU is back home in the Summit League and is dominating once again. The Golden Eagles are 28-11 overall and 15-3 in the league, four games ahead of second-place South Dakota State. That ORU sits atop the conference standings is hardly surprising. The unexpected development is that Oral Roberts finds itself in at-large range with a No. 42 RPI, despite the move to the No. 22 RPI conference. A non-conference series win against Memphis, a 2-1 record in midweek games against Texas Tech, a 2-0 record in midweek games against Oklahoma State and a single midweek win against Oklahoma have helped Oral Roberts build a solid at-large résumé.
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“We try to put together clubs that have balance, and it’s kind of come together this year,” ORU coach Ryan Folmar said. “We feel like we have really good balance to what we’re doing -- not only offense, defense and pitching, but some young guys and veterans that have blended together well. It’s pretty exciting.”
An excellent veteran core has made it easier for less experienced players to get their feet under them. The Eagles start four quality seniors in the heart of their lineup in C/1B Audie Afenir (.356/.425/.473), DH/1B/RHP Anthony Sequeira (.345/.446/.566 with a team-best seven homers and 40 RBIs), CF Derrian James (.341/.418/.520, 3 HR, 34 RBI, 7 SB) and 2B Matt Brandy (.329/.437/.441, 3 HR, 26 RBI). A fifth senior, SS Dean Wilson (.316/.404/.367), has performed well too.
“[Those seniors] have all really anchored that thing,” Folmar said. “We’re starting four freshmen on a given day, and they take some pressure off the young players and let some of those seniors carry the load when they need to. I think it’s an offense that kind of grinds you out a little bit. Anthony’s got seven home runs, but we’re more of a doubles type club than home runs. I think we’ll grind you out a little bit, we run the bases pretty well. We don’t have a lot of stolen bases, but we put some pressure on you on the basepaths.”
Another senior, Logan Domenico, served as ORU’s leadoff man before going down with a hamstring injury. In his place, freshman catcher Matt Whatley has thrived atop the order, hitting .329/.418/.479 with four homers, 29 RBIs and a team-best 12 stolen bases. Oral Roberts has had a nice string of catchers go on to play pro ball, and Whatley looks like their next big prospect because he’s a very good all-around player. Catchers with speed and the on-base skills to lead off are hard to find; Whaley doesn’t just run well for a catcher -- he runs well, period.
“Matt’s a guy that hit leadoff in high school at times, was comfortable in that spot. He just so happens to be a catcher, but a guy with leadoff-type tools,” Folmar said. “He’s gonna draw some walks, he can really run. He just hasn’t looked back. And he’s good behind the plate, really good. This is a young kid that has a chance to be a special type player. He’s got tools, he’s strong, he’s tough, he’s smart. And he’s just figuring this thing out.”
Whatley and Afenir give ORU a pair of catchers they can rotate to keep both fresh. Afenir comes from a great baseball family (he is a cousin of Buck and Joven Afenir, who have played at Kansas) and provides good leadership skills. He is also an accomplished bad-ball hitter with a knack for driving in key runs.
James has had a breakout year hitting in the 2-hole. He scuffled last year after transferring in from the junior-college ranks but came back and had a great fall, then heated up along with the weather this spring. He’s a good runner who plays strong defense in center field and leads the team in doubles (13). Behind him in the 3-hole, Brandy sets the tone for the whole team with his relentless offensive approach -- he has 28 walks and just 15 strikeouts in 152 at-bats.
“He’s the same guy every day, the same guy every at-bat. He handles the moment really well -- he wants to be in the moment,” Folmar said of Brandy. “He’s walked twice as much as he’s struck out, really disciplined, and I think guys feed off that. We’re starting three freshmen most of the time, and those guys have had a chance to watch Matt and see how he goes about his business.”
Sequeira is the most dangerous power threat in the heart of the order, but that’s only the start of the value he provides. Heading into the year, the Golden Eagles had two players with closing experience -- Kyler Stout and Nathan Garza. Stout has been limited to eight appearances by shoulder issues, and Garza is out with a lat injury. In their absence, Sequeira has emerged as the anchor of the bullpen, posting a 1.42 ERA, six saves and a 24-3 strikeout-walk mark in 19 innings. The coaching staff never would have envisioned that a year ago.
Before last summer, Sequeira hadn’t pitched since high school, thanks in part to some injuries. During summer ball last year, his coach was looking for some volunteers to throw an inning or two when a game got out of hand, so Sequeira took the mound.
“I got a phone call this summer and he said, ‘I went out and pitched pretty well, do you think I should try to pursue this when I get back on campus?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And he’s been good,” Folmar said. “For a guy who hasn’t pitched a lot, the command really stands out. He’s a strike-thrower, a competitive guy, but there might be some ceiling to him. He’s been sitting in that 90-93 range. The breaking ball continues to improve and get better, he’s able to throw it for strikes now. We thought that was the pitch he needed to develop, and he’s done it. He’s got good feel for the changeup, and the breaking ball continues to tighten up.”
Senior righty Jacob McDavid also has quality stuff in the bullpen and has been very good when he’s on, though he has been less consistent. And lefthanded swingman Tyler Buss has bolstered the bullpen and given ORU a lift in four starts.
The team’s best starting arm belongs to junior righty Guillermo Trujillo (6-2, 4.39), who usually pitches in the 90-94 range and flashes a curveball that can be an out pitch along with a slider/cutter and changeup. His fastball is his bread and butter, and occasionally he has left some balls in the middle of the zone or lost his control, but he is capable of dominating when he’s at his best.
Junior righty Xavier Altamirano (5-1, 2.61 with a 58-9 K-BB mark in a team-high 58.2 innings) has been a revelation in the rotation, emerging as the team’s most consistent starter. A junior-college transfer, Altamirano is a strike-thrower who commands his 87-91 fastball to both sides and mixes in three offspeed pitches effectively.
“Every once in a while he’ll flash you a fastball a little better than that, but he knows how to pitch and compete,” Folmar said. “He brings some toughness, that steady Eddie guy you like to see in that rotation, the same guy every time out.”
Senior righty Kurt Giller went down with an elbow injury, so ORU moved freshman righty Bryce Howe (2-1, 2.83) into the weekend rotation last week, and he pitched well. Howe has already shown his mettle in outings against Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. He doesn’t blow hitters away, but he competes with a solid three-pitch mix and has continued to get stronger. Pitching coach Sean Snedeker deserves credit for his work developing some of the less proven arms like Howe, Altamirano and Sequeira, which has been a key part of ORU’s success.
Whether as an automatic qualifier or an at-large team, Oral Roberts seems very likely to land in a regional. And the Golden Eagles look balanced enough and experienced enough to make some noise in the postseason.