The 2016 Summer Ball Notebook
Following the final game of the season for the University of Oklahoma baseball team, the Sooners' underclassmen began to spread out across the country. The players stretch from coast-to-coast with several as far away as New England in the northeast and California to the west. Key innings on the mound and at-bats at the plate will be garnered in the nation's various wood-bat summer collegiate leagues. Such leagues serve a dual purpose for college baseball players as they can prepare for the professional level in the long term, while getting offseason work to produce immediate results when they hit the diamond for the 2017 NCAA season.
Since Oklahoma head coach Pete Hughes completed his first season with the Sooners in 2014, OU has placed at least one player with the Harwich Mariners. This season, infielder Jack Flansburg will be the lone Sooner on the Cape in the Cape Cod Baseball League; one of the most prestigious and historic summer ball leagues in the country. Anthony Hermelyn was a Cape League All-Star in 2014 along with Harwich pitcher of the year Jacob Evans and OU outfielder Craig Aikin rounding out the Sooner contingent on the Mariners' roster. Recent MLB Draft pick, Sheldon Neuse played short and pitched for Harwich in 2015.
The Sooners brought in 21 newcomers to the program for the 2016 season, including 13 freshmen. At the start of the summer, seven rising sophomores are spread out across the map, including four players in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League in the northeast. Right-handed pitcher Dylan Grove, who finished the season with wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, is spending his summer on Martha's Vineyard playing for the Sharks, while right-hander Austin Hansen and infielder Thomas Hughes are with the Pittsfield Suns and catcher Hunter Southerland with the Bristol Blues.
Throughout the summer, SoonerSports.com will follow the Sooners through their experience with notes, stories and stats from across the country.
Summer Ball Notebook: That's a Wrap
NBC World Series, TCL Champs, .400 Hitters
The nearly yearlong committment to the game for a collegiate baseball player has reached another milestone on the calendar as student-athletes begin to filter back to campus for the start of the fall semester. Summer ball wrapped up across the country over the past few weeks with several leagues extending its postseason into the middle of August.
For the Sooners representing the University of Oklahoma in various leagues from coast-to-coast, the summer culminated in dogpiles, world series appearances, batting titles and more.
Summer Ball Notebook: All-Star Edition
Renae Martinez | C | Neptune Beach Pearl | California Collegiate League
Martinez, who hails from San Pedro, Calif., started 23 games behind the plate for Oklahoma in 2016. He hit .246 with a .415 slugging percentage, .380 on-base percentage and 20 runs scored with five doubles and two home runs. Martinez had previously played summer ball for the Alaska Goldpanners in Fairbanks last summer and with the Walla Walla Sweets in Washington the season before.
“This is my first time here playing in northern California,” stated Martinez. “It’s cool to experience and definitely different than southern California. It’s more of a city life than it was in Alaska; which is all nature and wilderness.
Thomas Hughes | IF | Pittsfield Suns | Futures Collegiate Baseball League
Hughes is in the lineup nearly every game for the Suns and hitting at a .286 clip with a .436 OBP. He has scored 25 runs and driven in 19 with nine doubles; earning himself a spot on the FCBL West All-Star Team.
“[The all-star game] was a lot of fun,” recalled Hughes. “The guys were awesome. We really didn’t have any awkward stages when meeting all the new guys. It was a long day. We had a pro day before and then a home run derby and then the game. We were together all day long and we just had a ton of fun with it.”
Kyle Mendenhall | IF | Acadiana Cane Cutters | Texas Collegiate League
Following his freshman season in 2015, Mendenhall was one of the few Sooners to not play summer ball. Instead, he stayed in Norman to work out and get stronger. A year older and stronger, he is enjoying a summer centered entirely around baseball in the Texas Collegiate League.
“The experience has been awesome,” said Mendenhall. “Being from San Diego, meeting a lot of Midwest kids in Oklahoma and then coming down here and meeting a lot of kids from the south has been different, but a lot of fun. Baseball-wise, it’s been a great experience. The competition is awesome. We’re playing guys from the SEC and Oklahoma State. The wood bats are different, but it’s also been a good change of pace from metal to wood and seeing how everyone adapts and how the pitching is a little bit different.”
Walker Enjoying Summer in the Northwoods
Steele Walker | OF | Wisconsin Woodchucks | Northwoods League
In the first 29 games of his collegiate career, Steele Walker appeared in the Oklahoma starting lineup as an outfielder 28 times, including 27 starts in center. To that point, he was hitting .220 with just five extra-base hits following a series win for the Sooners over Texas. OU welcomed Dallas Baptist to L. Dale Mitchell Park for its next game on April 5 and that game marked the beginning of a new season for Walker. On that day, Walker hit in his usual six spot, but was assigned the role of designated hitter for the first time.
“I can go back to one game,” Walker recalled. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘why am I playing so tight?’. It was so frustrating for me because I had such a good fall and I couldn’t take it over to the spring. I took a step back and thought about what I was thinking about at the plate and what I was thinking about before the games and I was putting way too much pressure on myself instead of playing the game like I enjoy it.
“When you can relax, you’re body does things that you don’t even expect. It all falls together and I tried to mature as a player and relax. Once I started enjoying the game again and not letting the pressures of college ball get to me it started with a knock here, a couple there and the game was fun again.”
Summer Ball Preps Stoney for Senior Season
Austin O'Brien | 1B | Hays Larks | Jayhawk League
Nine players were a part of the incoming crop of OU baseball freshman in the fall of 2013. Through the MLB draft and attrition, there is just one left for 2017. As first baseman Austin O’Brien prepares for his final season at Oklahoma, he is ready to accept his role as a leader on the Sooner team and the top goal for he and his team to strive for is clear.
“Making the tournament,” O’Brien stated simply when asked what his goal for next year would be. “Being the only fourth-year guy, I feel like it’s my duty to go out there and lead and help the team make the tournament so that’s what I’m going to do.”
In his three seasons at Oklahoma, O’Brien has started 105 games between first base and designated hitter. He is a career .252 hitter with a .387 slugging percentage. O’Brien has scored 62 runs and driven in 59. His 10th career home run came at the Big 12 Championship and marked the 100th hit of his career.
Grove in an Early Groove in the Shark Tank
Dylan Grove | RHP | Martha's Vineyard Sharks | Futures Collegiate Baseball League
Dylan grove pitched a seven-inning, complete-game victory in an elimination game at the Big 12 Championship in late May as the Sooners knocked off the regular season champions and eventual College World Series participant Texas Tech Red Raiders, 17-4. After little time off, he was back on the mound for the start of summer ball with the Martha's Vineyard Sharks of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League in New England.
Martha's Vineyard is an island south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts that sits 20.5 miles across and covers a little more than 87 square miles. The Sharks play their home games at the Vineyard Baseball Park; known simply as the "Shark Tank". To get around to the other nine league venues, the team travels by ferry to the main land for its road games. That coupled with a variety of other factors that come with island life and made for a far different routine than what Grove is accustomed to during the collegiate spring season.
"I’ll wake up and try not to sleep in so as not to waste any time, but it happens sometimes," began Grove. "Everybody will make breakfast. I’ve got six roommates; all teammates. Then we’ll go to the beach for three or four hours to hang out and then head up to the field. It doesn’t get too crazy. Just go to the beach and go to the field to play."