Dylan Grove (pictured above with the Martha's Vineyard Sharks in 2016) struck out 11 and defeated No. 2 Texas Tech on March 31 before he struck out 10 at Texas just one week later. He was pitching in the Sooners' Friday night role to begin Big 12 play as Oklahoma was ranked as high as No. 16 in the polls and owned an overall record of 26-7. Oklahoma's 2017 season would stretch on for another 58 days after Grove started in Austin, a 3-5 loss to the Longhorns, but he would account for just 2.1 innings of work, including two starts.
A right-hander out of Moore, Okla., Grove's struggles began in a series-opening start at Michigan. The series began on a Thursday due to the Easter holiday that weekend and he pitched on one less day of rest. Grove walked the first batter he faced, but quickly responded by getting the next two batters out. From there he allowed five in a row to reach; walking four and hitting one. He left the game before the end of the first inning and a week later, having been moved to the Sunday role on extra rest, failed to get a single out in a start against Kansas.
Grove, who is spending his summer playing for the Harwich Mariners of the historic Cape Cod Baseball League, called this moment his “rock bottom”.
“When I got taken out of the rotation in April, we all came to an agreement that I needed to take a break to figure out the mental side of it,” recalled Grove. “I was definitely not in the right state of mind to be starting a big game at the time, but by June I was ready.”
He made two relief appearances late in the year and continued to work closely with then-pitching coach Skip Johnson, who was introduced as the Sooners' new head coach on Tuesday. Oklahoma and its coaching staff new that to have a chance at a deep postseason run it would need Grove on the bump.
“Working with Skip was what got me through it,” Grove said of his late season drop-off. “He was invested in trying to figure out what the problem was and willing to work through it. I threw more bullpens in a three week stretch than I had in my entire life. We were trying to figure out what the deal was and what the issues were. He was a big part of me coming through that valley.”
"The biggest advantage to having Skip come back is we already bought in to what Skip was teaching us."
-- Dylan Grove
The Sooners earned their first NCAA berth since 2013 and were awarded the two-seed at the Louisville Regional. Oklahoma got strong pitching performances from Devon Perez, who won the opener, and Jake Irvin in the first two games. However, as Irvin was outdueled by National Player of the Year Brendan McKay of Louisville with a late-inning offensive outburst from the Cardinals, OU was sent into an elimination game on day three of the regional. The Sooners needed to win to gain a rematch with the hosts, which would have been played shortly after their elimination contest with the Musketeers. Grove did not dress the first game of the day as he was slated to start the second game of the day, should OU advance.
Instead of getting the ball against the national No. 7 seed, Grove and the Sooners saw their season come to a close with a loss to Xavier.
“I had finally felt comfortable again being out on the mound,” said Grove. “I wanted the opportunity to step up to the task. I felt like I was ready to be put in a big situation again, which is how I feel now. The focus is to take the pressure off of myself and buy in to what Skip has been teaching us the whole year; control what you can control and focus on the mitt. I was beginning to feel confident in myself that I could go out there and perform for the team.”
Exactly two weeks later, Grove got his chance to start again. Though the stage was set in a more relaxed atmosphere than an NCAA Regional, the game was not lacking in talent.
One of eight Sooners to suit up for the Harwich Mariners in the last four seasons, Grove came up in the rotation for Harwich's fifth game of the season on Sunday, June 18 at home against the Hyannis Harbor Hawks. Pitching against Clemson's Brooks Crawford, who was 4-0 with a 1.23 ERA with the Tigers, Grove pitched six-shutout innings and allowed just three hits with two strikeouts. The game may have ended in a scoreless tie after nine innings, but more importantly, he did not walk a single batter and needed just 67 pitches to get through six innings.
“I called him, while I was on my way to the gym,” Grove said of his conversation with Skip after his Harwich debut. “I said ‘hello' and the first thing he said was ‘I'm so proud of you'. It went on from there and he talked about how he'd seen many players go through the ups and the downs. He'd seen players go through rough stretches and seen them come out better on the other side many times. We didn't talk too much about mechanics or how hard I was throwing. It was a nice conversation about how much better it is pitching with confidence and knowing that I can go out there and throw fastballs, throw strikes, be effective and be able to help whatever team I'm on.”
Grove picked up the win over No. 2 Texas Tech with 10 strikeouts on March 31, 2017.
In two years with the Sooners, Grove has pitched in a number of different capacities within the staff. Through the first half of his freshman season, he was used sparingly out of the bullpen and was not on the team's traveling squad for its first conference series of 2016. Grove later emerged with a dominant outing against Oral Roberts as a freshman in the first start of his career. He would finish out his rookie campaign with a seven-inning complete game victory over No. 5 Texas Tech at the Big 12 Championship.
As a sophomore working under the tutelage of Johnson, Grove made nine starts and struck out seven or more in all four of his starts that lasted better than five innings. Johnson's track record with pitchers is proven to be one of the best in college baseball as he guided 32 pitchers to the MLB Draft in 10 years at Texas and saw three more of his pitchers drafted out of Oklahoma this month.
“The biggest advantage to having Skip come back is we already, our whole staff that's returning, had bought in to what Skip was teaching us,” stated Grove. “There was a point in time where there was a learning curve with Skip and getting to know each other. Him already having those relationships and us believing in what he has been teaching has been a huge part of the successes we've had as a pitching staff.
Grove and his teammates learned of Johnson's promotion to head coach on Monday evening shortly before the news was released by the University. Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione and Senior Associate AD Greg Tipton informed players of a conference call in which they would be introduced to their new head coach.
“It was awesome,” said Grove. “As soon as they said that they were going to put Skip on the phone, I think Joe C just handed the phone over after he told us. Everyone just started cheering and was excited. Skip got on the phone and you could tell he was excited. He just kind of gave us a little talk explaining what we were going to do and how excited he was. He doesn't need to introduce himself, which is one of the good things about this. We already have close relationships with him.”
Oklahoma looks to return the bulk of its pitching staff for the 2018 season. Grove will once again be relied upon to be an anchor in the rotation early next season as he continues to regain his control and rebuild his confidence on the mound. Grove, who came to OU as a part of a 2015 incoming class that was ranked as high as No. 10 by Perfect Game, is joined by fellow rising juniors Irvin, who is competing for a spot with Team USA's Collegiate National Team, Connor Berry, Austin Hansen, also pitching for Harwich, Ryan Madden and Kyle Tyler as the returning juniors on next year's staff.