Sooners Embark on New Era in OU Baseball
June 19, 2017 marked a milestone; the official beginning of a new era in Oklahoma baseball. The ensuing months have been packed with preparation and anticipation; building a need, a desire to pull on that Crimson and Cream and lace up for a Sooner baseball gameday. Skip ahead nearly six months and the wait is over. That new era of OU baseball is finally set to reach another milestone as opening day of the Skip Johnson era is now in sight. Emerging from the shadow of this program’s rich history of national champions, All-Americans and major leaguers is a band of brothers prepared to proudly step on the field and represent all of Sooner Nation as they look to the horizon and see the milestone that defines an entire sport…Omaha.
Johnson and the Sooners open the 2018 season on the road in Myrtle Beach, S.C. against Indiana on Friday, Feb. 16. Oklahoma plays four games opening weekend, including a Feb. 17 doubleheader against South Alabama and Coastal Carolina on the CCU campus followed by the weekend finale against Virginia Tech on Feb. 18 in Myrtle Beach.
The first of 33 Sooner home games at L. Dale Mitchell Park takes place on Tuesday, Feb. 21 against Abilene Christian. Oklahoma’s home opener marks the beginning of a stretch of 25 out of 27 games played at home.
Coming off a 35-24 record in 2017 and a third place finish in the Big 12, which ranked as the nation’s top conference, the Sooners return 20 letterwinners from a year ago and all 59 starts made on the mound. Junior Jake Irvin (Bloomington, Minn.) and senior Devon Perez (Ashburn, Va.) return to the top of the OU rotation. Oklahoma’s lineup is highlighted by senior Kyle Mendenhall (Carlsbad, Calif.) and juniors Steele Walker (Prosper, Texas) and Brylie Ware (Sedgwick, Kan.); both of whom were All-Big 12 First Team selections in 2017.
The Sooners welcomed 15 newcomers for the 2018 season with the addition of 13 high school and two junior college players. Four freshmen were selected in the 2017 MLB First-Year Player Draft. The class is OU’s second top-20 recruiting class across the country in the last three years. Collegiate Baseball News slotted the class No. 12 in the nation, while the Sooners landed at No. 20 by Baseball America.
Johnson was hired ahead of the 2017 season as the Oklahoma pitching coach and will continue in that role, while serving as the head coach in 2018. In three of the last four seasons, the Sooners returned less than 50% of their innings pitched from the previous season. This year, OU brings back 80% of innings pitched, all 59 starts and 28 wins. In Johnson’s first season, Oklahoma pitchers surrendered the least amount of home runs in the Big 12 and combined for 531 strikeouts to rank fourth in the league.
Irvin, a 6-foot-6 right-hander, earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention a year ago with a 6-3 record and 3.53 earned run average. He enters 2018 as the No. 81 college draft prospect by D1Baseball.com after a stint with the Team USA Collegiate National Team. Perez, another All-Big 12 Honorable Mention pick, emerged as a starter midway through last season and went 6-2 with a 3.50 ERA. The 6-foot-5 righty struck out a team-high 81 and walked just 11 in 64.1 innings of work.
|13||Ryan Madden||Jr.||S/R||Westminster, Colo./Fairview|
|15||Kyle Tyler||Jr.||R/R||Oklahoma City, Okla./Westmoore|
|17||Aaron Brooks||Fr.||R/R||Blanchard, Okla./Blanchard|
|18||Ledgend Smith||Fr.||L/L||Binger, Okla./Binger-Oney|
|20||Devon Perez||Sr.||R/R||Ashburn, Va./Iowa Western CC|
|22||Lane Ramsey||RJr.||R/R||Oklahoma City, Okla./Newman|
|23||Dylan Grove||Jr.||R/R||Oklahoma City, Okla./Moore|
|24||Cade Cavalli||Fr.||R/R||Bixby, Okla./Bixby|
|25||Levi Prater||Fr.||S/L||Ada, Okla./Byng|
|26||Michael Jensen||Fr.||R/R||Eden Prairie, Minn./Holy Family Catholic|
|27||Jake Irvin||Jr.||R/R||Bloomington, Minn./Jefferson|
|28||Connor Berry||Jr.||R/R||Sugar Land, Texas/Kempner|
|29||Brett Lorah||Jr.||R/R||Elgin, Okla./Seminole State|
|30||Jake Terry||Fr.||R/R||Sand Springs, Okla./Charles Page|
|31||Trevor Munsch||RFr.||L/L||Lawrence, Kan./Lawrence Free State|
|32||Zack Matthews||Fr.||S/R||Wellston, Okla./Wellston|
|35||Nathan Wiles||So.||R/R||Overland Park, Kan./Blule Valley West|
|38||Austin Hansen||Jr.||L/R||Lenexa, Kan./Olathe Northwest|
|42||Braidyn Fink||So.||L/L||Moore, Okla./Westmoore|
Four veteran returners are competing for the remaining spots in the Sooner rotation. Juniors Dylan Grove (Moore, Okla.), Kyle Tyler (Oklahoma City) and Austin Hansen (Lenexa, Kan.) as well as sophomore Nathan Wiles (Overland Park, Kan.) all started seven games or more in 2017. Grove, a 6-foot-2 righty, made nine starts and went 1-3 with a 4.71 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 36.1 innings. He pitched in three games with the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod Baseball League over the summer. A 6-foot right-hander, Tyler made 10 starts as a sophomore. Over the summer, he led the Alaska League with 51 strikeouts and was second in wins and third in ERA.
Hansen, a 6-foot righty, made eight starts with an overall record of 3-1 and ERA of 3.86 last season. He held opponents to a .194 average and earned a spot with the Harwich Mariners on the Cape as he pitched to a 2-1 record with two saves out of the pen. As a freshman, Wiles, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, pitched in 20 games, including seven starts. He was 4-4 with one save and later pitched to a 2.57 ERA with the Santa Barbara Foresters of the California Collegiate League.
Freshman newcomer Cade Cavalli (Bixby, Okla.) and redshirt-junior Lane Ramsey (Oklahoma City), who was limited in 2017 due to 2016 labrum surgery, will also be in the mix to start on the mound. Cavalli, a 6-foot-4 two-way product, was drafted in the 29th round of the MLB Draft in 2017 by the Atlanta Braves. A right-handed power arm, he missed most of his senior season due to back injury after earning All-America as a junior. The tallest player on the Sooners roster at 6-foot-8, Ramsey, a right-hander, pitched out of relief in five games last year after transferring in from Newman University. He pitched this past summer for the Eau Claire Express of the Northwoods League and owned a 3.21 ERA in 47.2 innings.
The Sooners return three key pieces from last year’s bullpen, but will look to find a new closer for the 2018 season. Junior right-hander Connor Berry (Sugar Land, Texas) stands at 6-foot tall with one of the best breaking balls in the league. He was 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA and .134 opponent batting average in 22 appearances last year. Sophomore Braidyn Fink (Moore, Okla.), a 6-foot-1 lefty, could factor in to the back-end of the bullpen. He went 1-1 and held opponents to a .206 average in 2017 and was a Futures League All-Star with the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks. After filling several roles in the OU pitching staff over the last two years, junior Ryan Madden (Westminster, Colo.) settled in to a strong middle relief spot late last season. A 6-foot-3 right-hander, he was 4-2 and made 19 relief appearances and four starts.
Additional right-handers competing for outs late in the game are 6-foot junior Brett Lorah (Elgin, Okla.) and 6-foot-1 freshman Zack Matthews (Wellston, Okla.). Lorah arrived at OU after two seasons at Seminole State, where he was 5-1 with six saves and a 3.20 ERA last season. Matthews, who throws in the low to mid 90s, was an All-State Honorable Mention by The Oklahoman in 2017.
From the left side, Oklahoma can turn to Levi Prater (Ada, Okla.), Ledgend Smith (Binger, Okla.) and Trevor Munsch (Lawrence, Kan.). Prater, a 6-foot-2 freshman, was the Oklahoma 4A and Conference Player of the Year with a perfect 10-0 record and 0.35 ERA as a senior. A 6-foot-3 freshman, Smith missed the fall due to a broken foot. He was drafted in the 18th round by the Brewers after earning All-State with a 12-0 record and 0.55 ERA. After redshirting a year ago, the 6-foot-5 Munsch has improved his velocity to a mid to high 80s fastball.
Rounding out Johnson’s right-handed options are freshmen Aaron Brooks (Blanchard, Okla.), Jake Terry (Sand Springs, Okla.) and Michael Jensen (Eden Prairie, Minn.), who will sit out 2018 with an injury. Brooks, who stands at 6-foot-3, was 9-1 as a senior and 20-2 in his high school career as he helped his team to the 2017 4A Championship game. Terry, a 6-foot-4 returner from Tommy John, missed his senior season, but previously played in the 2015 Area Code Games.
Junior Domenic DeRenzo (Pittsburgh, Pa.) was a freshman All-American in 2016 despite missing the end of the season due to Tommy John. He made just 20 starts as a sophomore, but totaled eight extra-base hits. DeRenzo, now healthy, is the most veteran player in the Sooners’ most competitive and deepest position. A power bat and plus arm, he will also add depth to the OU outfield. Sophomore Brady Lindsly (Keller, Texas), Oklahoma’s left-handed option behind the dish, hit .271 and made 14 starts as a freshman.
|6||Justin Cooke||Fr.||S/R||Norman, Okla./Norman|
|9||Domenic DeRenzo||Jr.||R/R||Pittsburgh, Pa./Pittsburgh Central Catholic|
|14||Justin Mitchell||Fr.||R/R||Platte City, Mo./Platte County|
|40||Brady Lindsly||So.||L/R||Keller, Texas/Keller|
Freshmen Justin Mitchell (Platte City, Mo.) and Justin Cooke (Norman, Okla.) bring added depth to the position. Mitchell, who was drafted in the 39th round by the Royals, was twice named the Conference Player of the Year in high school. Cooke, a switch-hitter, hit .459 and was named OCA All-State Large West as a senior.
Mendenhall is the only four-year Sooner on the 2018 roster. He has made 112 career starts at second base and is coming off his most productive season at the plate. Mendenhall, known for his glove, hit .232 with five home runs and 27 RBI last season. Up the middle, Mendenhall teams up with sophomore shortstop Brandon Zaragoza (Moore, Okla.), who became the first freshman to start opening day at short for OU since 2007. He made the All-Big 12 Freshman Team and hit .251 with 27 runs scored.
|4||Brandon Zaragoza||So.||R/R||Moore, Okla./Westmoore|
|5||Kyle Mendenhall||Sr.||R/R||Carlsbad, Calif./Carlsbad|
|11||Thomas Hughes||Jr.||R/R||Norman, Okla./Norman North|
|12||Brylie Ware||Jr.||R/R||Sedgwick, Kan./Neosho County CC|
|16||Dylan Criquet-Danielson||Fr.||R/R||Marshall, Minn./Marshall|
|24||Cade Cavalli||Fr.||R/R||Bixby, Okla./Bixby|
|34||Brock Henderson||Fr.||R/R||Chickasha, Okla./Chickasha|
|36||Tyler Hardman||Fr.||R/R||Corona, Calif./Temescal Canyon|
The Sooners’ top candidates to start at first and third are Ware and freshmen Tyler Hardman (Corona, Calif.) and Cavalli. Ware, a 2017 Big 12 Co-Newcomer of the Year, hit .298 as the OU designated hitter. He spent his summer hitting .390 for the Wisconsin Woodchucks in the Northwoods. Cavalli, who will balance pitching and infield work, and Hardman both possess power potential. Hardman was drafted in the 37th round by the Rockies and hit .530 as a senior.
Competing for time on the infield is junior Thomas Hughes (Norman, Okla.) and freshmen Dylan Criquet-Danielson (Marshall, Minn.) and Brock Henderson (Chickasha, Okla.). Hughes brings 60 games of experience as a middle infielder over the last two seasons. Criquet-Danielson and Henderson are both shortstops by trade with Henderson filling Oklahoma’s need for a utility infielder.
Walker is a preseason All-American, the No. 21 college draft prospect by D1Baseball.com and on the Golden Spikes Watch List entering his junior season. A left-handed stick, he hit third or fourth most of last season with a .333 average, eight home runs and 51 RBI. Walker split his summer between Team USA and the Brewster Whitecaps on the Cape. He started the majority of his games in center last season and will either return to center or move to right. Junior Cade Harris (Leona, Texas), another left-handed hitter, will start in a corner outfield spot after making the move from the infield late last season. Overall, he hit .267 with a .281 average as the Sooner leadoff hitter in 2017.
|1||Steele Walker||Jr.||L/L||Prosper, Texas/Prosper|
|2||Blake Brewster||Jr.||L/L||Moore, Okla./Moore|
|3||Cade Harris||Jr.||L/L||Leona, Texas/Centerville|
|7||Kyler Murray||RSo.||R/R||Allen, Texas/Texas A&M|
|8||Jacob Walker||Jr.||L/L||Hallsville, Texas/Navarro College|
|21||Anthony Schlass||Fr.||L/R||West Bend, Wis./West Bend West|
Junior Blake Brewster (Moore, Okla.) started 19 games last year and redshirt-sophomore Kyler Murray (Allen, Texas) made 12 starts with both seeking an expanded role in 2018. Brewster, a left-handed hitter, hit .243 and slugged .486 with four home runs and will compete for a corner outfield or the DH spot. Murray, a Sooner quarterback, scored 16 runs and swiped 12 bags. This year he will move from left to center field.
Newcomers Jacob Walker (Hallsville, Texas) and Anthony Schlass (West Bend, Wis.), both left-handed batters, will compete for starts. Walker, a speedy outfielder from Navarro College, hit .347 with a 1.005 OPS as a sophomore. Schlass is coming off a perfect 33-0 season and WIAA State Championship as well as back-to-back All-State First Team selections.
Johnson brought in Clay Van Hook and Clay Overcash as the assistant coaches on his inaugural staff. He also welcomed back former Sooner Evan Mistich as the program’s volunteer assistant. Van Hook will run the OU offense, work with infielders and coach third base. Overcash will assist in various aspects of the program on offense, defense and pitching as well as work with the catchers. Mistich is assigned to working with the outfielders and will coach first base.