OMAHA, Neb. — Trills! Chills! Spills!
The latest Top Gun movie? Nah. Oklahoma Sooners baseball.
The Sooners are hardly your routine by-the-book bunch, and not just because they’re steaming along in the winner’s bracket of the Men’s College World Series after beating Notre Dame 6-2 Sunday night. This is foot-to-the-floor baseball, played as if their hair is on fire.
Consider what has put them on the brink of playing for the national championship:
Flip head first into the other team’s dugout catching a foul pop-up? Sure. First baseman Blake Robertson did that Sunday on the game’s first pitch. “It might not have settled (pitcher Cade Horton down) down but it settled me down a little,” coach Skip Johnson said later. “Every out is important. You’ve got 27 of them . . . and the faster you can get them, the better it is, believe me.”
Make both the first and third outs of an inning at third base, with runners daring the Irish arms, and losing? Old baseball adage: Never make the first or third out at third base. Oklahoma did both. A small price to pay to keep the heat on. Johnson again: “No matter the fear — getting out at times — I think they just keep attacking. If you attack and be aggressive and not worry about failure, that’s what it’s really about. You gave yourself a chance to succeed by trying to fail.”
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Turn the pitching duties on this crucial night over to a redshirt freshman who missed all last year with Tommy John surgery? What's the problem? Cade Horton, a Norman kid who went to high school not two miles from campus, allowed one Notre Dame ball to leave the infield in the first 16 Irish batters and struck out 11 in six innings.
Johnson marvels at how quickly Horton has come back from surgery, saying “I really don’t know if he’s ready yet.” One of Horton’s most effective pitches Sunday was his slider. He learned to throw it just before the Big 12 championship. That wasn’t even four weeks ago.
Oklahoma squeeze bunted and took extra bases and slashed lined drives. Bashing away with homers is so . . . common. All six Sooner runs scored on singles or a safety squeeze bunt that led to a Notre Dame error. Oklahoma has 23 hits in two games and 19 have been singles. The Sooners stole three bases Sunday. Peyton Graham had four hits and two steals. The last guy to do that in a College World Series game was named Barry Bonds, 38 years ago. “They used all phases of their game,” Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett said.
The Sooners are marching through the College World Series so far one bag at a time, while generally playing with the fast forward button pushed, and that even includes the base coaches. Clay Van Hook was so animated moving a runner around third base, he raced behind home plate to wave his arms. How often do you see a third base coach standing next to the batter in the on-deck circle?
“That’s our identity, to try and create as much chaos as we can on the offensive side,” Johnson said. “I think our offense has really helped our pitching. It’s kind of helped those guys just to continue to attack, and our defense has gotten better. We talk about getting better weekly.”
Oklahoma has the audacity of youth. Four freshmen and five sophomores started Sunday. The Sooners have the confidence to overcome any adversity. They lost one game this season, at Wichita State, 18-0. Another to Dallas Baptist 10-1. They played in a special event in March and were swept by LSU, UCLA and Tennessee by a combined score of 28-7. They dropped a series at home to New Orleans.
They’ve lost 22 games in all. Should they win out here, that would match the second highest defeat total for a national champion in the history of the College World Series.
But they‘re on a wave. They’ve beaten Virginia Tech in the super regional decider and now Texas A&M and Notre Dame in Omaha by a combined score of 30-12, and never trailed in any of them.
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“I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, our thing is we want to prove people wrong and make a statement,” centerfielder Tanner Tredaway said. “We were able to do that in regional, and super and we want to do that here. So, yeah, it’s kind of an expectation to do well. We’re rolling right now and we’re going to keep riding it.”
Fact is, this College World Series can use Oklahoma’s unconventional fire, in lieu of any late-inning drama. The six games so far have been decided by 5, 4, 15, 4, 8 and 4 runs.
Fact is, the Sooners have history on their side now. They have started 2-0 twice before in Omaha — 1951 and 1994. They won the national championship both years.
Fact is, they are believing more every day. “We’ve had that in mind from the very beginning and it’s not just a new idea,” third baseman Wallace Clark said of a shot at the national championship.
A team unafraid to make mistakes is a dangerous commodity at this point. Johnson mentioned the fourth inning untidiness at third base when two runners were gunned down. “I thought man, we just put the momentum back on the other side. But you can take the momentum back with a guy like Cade and what he did.”
He also mentioned something Omaha legend Augie Garrido once told him. Garrido is the coach who won five titles.
“The team that gets the most comfortable when they get here, they play good.”
And the Oklahoma Sooners are looking more comfortable by the day.