Feb. 15, 2010
“I think, like any season, the Oklahoma Sooner baseball team is excited to get started. I think the feeling on my face describes our preseason so far, a little cold. I need to make sure my face has the blood running through it again. It’s probably been the most challenging pre-practice in the 18 or 19 years I’ve been in Division I baseball. Ours guys have done a good job of staying focused and concentrating. We’ve been inside quite a bit. We’re very blessed. We have our new indoor hitting facility we’ve been able to take advantage of. We’ve gone up to the Everest Indoor several times. I think for our club, what we’ve done, is we’ve really tried to focus and understand that sometimes those things can be a blessing. We’ve been going over bunt coverages and team-type things where you can really slow it down and teach. We’ve been able to keep our pitchers in rhythm.
“We were allowed to start practice three weeks ago with the NCAA rule, of course, at the beginning of the month. The most important thing at that point was getting our pitchers back in shape so they can get their pitch count up. We’ve been able to do that. We’ve had three full intersquads … nine innings of intersquad on Friday and nine innings of intersquad on Saturday. We’ll throw a couple of guys midweek on Tuesday and Wednesday for a couple of innings, hopefully, weather permitting. We’ll be ready to go into San Diego State to get started this weekend against a really good San Diego State Aztec team coached by Tony Gwynn. I’m excited about getting out to warmer weather, that’s for sure. It’s a new club, nine players drafted out of last year’s club, a club that did a good job of getting Oklahoma’s first national seed. We’ve got a lot of veterans returning and have a lot of talent that we’re excited about developing. We have a really, really good freshman class that came in with a lot of good junior college players to fill the void of those players that left our program to pursue professional baseball.
“I had to give a definition of our team the other day at our team banquet. What I talked about was our depth. It’s clearly the most depth that I’ve been able to coach in 12 going on 13 years as a head coach. We’re going to have a lot of options and a lot of interchangeable parts. We should have the most depth we’ve had on the mound in a long time. We need three guys to replace the rotation we lost last year. There are three junior college All-Americans that we’re going to insert on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We’ve got three high school americans that we’ve recruited that we’re going to rely heavily on to give us a spot start or innings out of our bullpen. We’ve got a returning Division I All-American in Ryan Duke. That’s not even talking about guys like Michael Rocha and Jeremy Erben that return with Friday night starting experience and an awful lot of experience individually in baseball. We have a lot of depth on the mound and a lot of depth in our position play. We’re excited to see how they go out and compete.”
On having a pitcher as talented as Ryan Duke toward the end of the bullpen:
“It’s extremely important. I think we’ve shown the importance in the value of Ryan Duke by leaving him in that role. The young man that won the closer of the year (in 2009) had 20 saves, and believe it or not, plays for San Diego State. They’ve moved him to a starting role. We go in with a guy that was right on the tail end and was on the watch list for the closer of the year in college baseball, Ryan Duke. He led, of course, the Big 12 Conference in saves. We didn’t even give it any thought. We felt that if we have the depth recruiting wise to insert the new young men in the starting rotation, we could leave him alone. To me, the most important position on the mound is your Friday night starter and your second most important position is your closer. He can make the difference in at least two out of three games in the Big 12 on a weekend. We don’t want to have to move Ryan Duke and we don’t think we’re going to have to. With the strength in our rotation right now, those guys have to go out and have to compete and have to get better and have to win. There’s some strength there and I think that strength is defined by the fact that we’re leaving Jeremy Erben, who’s a senior, and Michael Rocha, a junior, coming out of the bullpen right now. Those are guys who clearly can start for us, but that’s the quality of what we’ve recruited to go on Friday, Saturday and Sunday so far.”
On signing junior pitcher Zach Neal:
“It was big. We knew what we were getting in Zach Neal when we recruited him but, of course, we needed to go through the fall. A lot of it is how his teammates really look at him. He’s a tireless worker. You don’t have to tell Zach what he needs to do between starts, he showed us that in the fall. He’s 13-0 as a junior college All-American coming from Howard Junior College. They won the National Chamionship and he was their ace. He’s been in that role and knows what’s expected from him. What I like to do, is I like to observe the time in the clubhouse and the time away from the field as much as we can. You can read a lot into that. His teammates clearly respect him. He’s earned their respect and they have a lot of trust in him. I think he’s going to have the mental toughness that it’s going to take. A few years ago we had Daniel McCutchen in that role and Daniel defined the toughness you need to have. He never budged. He’d lose a 2-1 ballgame and pitch his tail end off and he’d come back the next Friday and be that same guy. We need consistency and I think Zach’s going to be able to give us that.”
On what was seen in sophomore infielder Garret Buechele in the offseason:
“I’ve seen a lot of leadership, he was voted one of our captains. He’s just a smart baseball player. He goes about his work every day and just does a good job. He leads by example. He’s not afraid to comment or raise his voice when he needs to in the captain role. More than anything, the guys watch his work habit. He understands his position and understands his role on the team. His role has grown significantly. He was a tremendous bat for us last year. If he wasn’t the leader, than he was right at the top of hitting. He had the honor of Freshman of the Year in the Big 12. We redshirted him in that first year and he grew a lot in that first year and could show what he could do in that last year. We look for a big year from him. He’s clearly one of our leaders. Just the way he goes about carrying himself. He’s a smart baseball player. That’s really what we pride ourselves on. We really want our guys to understand the rules and understand the game and play and respect the game of baseball. He does a good job of leading in that capacity.”
On where Oklahoma is as a baseball program:
“One of the things I’ve been talking to this team about is how every year you’re asked about your team. Going into year five now as a head coach, our coaching staff feels like it’s about our program. We’ve even explained that to our team. We don’t want to talk about our team. We’re fortunate here at Oklahoma that our players’ peers in football, basketball and all our sports do so well. It’s really about our programs, starting with football. When you think of Oklahoma football, we have a great program filled with expectations for each team that are extremely high. I heard a statistic that when the baseball polls came out, it was the first time we’ve started the season ranked back-to-back years since ’95-’96. That’s something to be proud of, of course, but we want to become a program where that expectation is every year. It is with us, and I think that’s growing around the country. My feeling is that we need to go out there and prove that we belong in the top 25. Our expectations are much higher than that. We earned a national seed last year and our goal is to go out and earn another national seed. That’s why Friday is going to be important. It’s not a conference game, it’s early, but our young men understand the importance of the RPI and the importance of gaining a national seed and our program’s expectations should be that. That’s probably the growth we’ve been seeing over five years now. To be honest with you, I wasn’t quite sure we were going to be ranked in the top 25. To be ranked in the top 25 of three of the four national polls, is a compliment to our program and coaching staff, and what they’ve recruited and the quality of the athletes that are coming into the program replacing those nine drafted players that left.”
On the level of competition in this year’s Big 12 Conference:
“Last year we had six teams ranked in the preseason. We were sixteen, and, I think, projected to finish sixth in our league. Everyone was talking about how tough our league was going to be and comparing it to football, if you remember we had so many programs ranked in the top 25. This year, I think that Texas is unanimous in everyone’s number one poll. We were ranked in three of the four and (Texas) A&M might have been ranked in one of the other ones. To be honest with you, I don’t see how that can happen. Our conference is too good. Surely, we know that by the end of the year the Big 12 is going to emerge with several teams that are going to be competing for national seeds. To gain a national seed, we’re talking about being one of the top 16 teams in the country. Even though right now we recognize that Texas and Oklahoma are the only ones ranked nationally, we expect a lot more out of our peers and our conference. Our team will prepare for that. If it ends up being at the end of the year that our league was down a little bit, I’d be very surprised. We’re not going to anticipate that going in because we know what they’ve recruited, just like they know what we’ve recruited more regionally. They don’t know as much on the west and the east coast. Kansas and Kansas State have made a tremendous push, there’s no question. You can’t overlook Baylor, A&M, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma State. Those teams are going to come after you. I think going into the season with just two of the Big 12 teams ranked, we’ll see a lot of national contenders for the seeding and the hosts out of the top 16 by the end of the year.”