OMAHA, Neb. – The deed done — a masterful pitching performance to push his team closer to history — the Oklahoma man of the hour could think about the long road that led him here. And the missing sister whose cheers he longed to hear.
David Sandlin went seven innings Wednesday, grudgingly gave up five hits and a run, struck out 12 and in general carried the Sooners past Texas A&M 5-1 and into the finals of the Men’s College World Series. This from a pitcher who arrived at the ballpark Wednesday with a 5.93 earned run average. The last time Oklahoma made it this far, in 1994, David Sandlin wasn’t even born. His work Wednesday impressed both dugouts. “He kind of threw whatever he wanted whenever he wanted,” the Aggies’ Troy Claunch would say afterward. “Pretty fun to watch,” said Skip Johnson, his own coach.
After such a moment on such a state, what goes through a young man's mind?
He thought of the big outs Wednesday, when he came charging off the mound with fire in his body language after the end of the inning.
“I like to play with emotion. I know sometimes that’s not the best thing to do but that’s who I’ve been, and who I always will be.”
He thought of where the Sooners are now, with the right to play for a championship, and how the team visited the remnants of Rosenblatt Stadium the other day. There, amid the echoes of the past, they remembered the 1951 and ’94 Oklahoma players who won championships on that now-silent ground.
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“As coach Johnson said, it’s part of us. The history and everybody that’s played at the University of Oklahoma before us is just as important as the team we have now.”
He thought back on his high school junior year in Ossawa, Oklahoma, when there was no place for him to pitch in a strong prep program, and he considered quitting the game for good. That’s before he grew six inches in one year, found his niche (and his fastball) as a senior, headed off to Eastern Oklahoma State College and eventually ended up a Sooner this season, just in time to be here for one of the days of his life.
“Everything I’ve been through, I just knew I wanted to go play at the highest level. That’s all a kid can dream of. I think every kid in the nation that’s watching this game dreams of playing in this tournament. All the preparation through my life . . . I think that shows.
“Every now and then I’ll look back on (that junior year in high school). I think that’s what really keeps me grounded and humbled. After a bad outing, I think back to like, I’m almost not playing this sport. I’m lucky to be playing still. I get back to feeling blessed.”
And he thought of Holli.
His sister died of cancer at the age of 45 in late May. Five days after her passing, he gave up an earned run and struck out 10 in seven innings against Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament, saying of his lost sister, “She meant the world to me.”
On Wednesday, watching from his aisle seat behind the Oklahoma dugout at Charles Schwab Field, Bill Sandlin understood what was going on in his son’s head down below on the mound.
“She was there with him, he said (at the Big 12). I think she’s with him today.”
“She’ll be with me every game throughout the rest of my career,” David said. “I know she wanted to be at every game possible when she was with us, so I know now she’s going to be at every game. She’ll be cheering probably just as loud up there as she would be in person.”
All in all, it was one fine day for the redshirt sophomore. And for the folks sitting up in the stands.
“Just getting here to Omaha is the best thing that could ever happen,” Bill Sandlin was saying, thinking back to his conversation with the Oklahoma coach when David was being recruited.
“I told Skip Johnson, `you’re my trip to Omaha. It’s on my bucket list.' He told me he picked the right kid.”
Bill and wife Jan — Holli’s stepmom — shared in David’s baseball journey. Bill built the pitcher’s mound at the house and caught for his son. Well, for a while. “I quit catching him at 85,” he said of David’s fastball speed. “I couldn’t see the ball anymore.” Jan and Holli would have good-natured debates about who was the most vociferous David Sandlin fan.
Late May was a dark time, but then there was also a postseason for David to play and his family to watch. “We’ve been so busy we haven’t processed it yet,” Jan said of Holli's passing.
Omaha would make the world brighter. Anything in Omaha. But Wednesday was beyond special.
David had been put in Oklahoma’s game 1 blowout win on Friday, more or less to get acclimated to the surroundings. He gave up four runs in one-third of an inning. But that was mop-up time in an easy win. Wednesday was for real.
“Everybody said, `this kid has had some difficulties.’ You know what, he went out today and said, `I don’t have any difficulties,” Bill said. “We had dinner with him last night. He said `Dad, I’m going to get 10 strikeouts.’ Now he has 11.”
A moment later, he had 12. The day just kept getting better and better for David Sandlin, his family, his team. The kid once nearly cut in high school was, for an afternoon, king of Omaha. His sister would have had a ball.