OU baseball: Inconsistencies hurt Oklahoma in narrow NCAA postseason miss

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Former Oklahoma baseball and football player Kyler Murray talks with OU baseball coach Skip Johnson before throwing out the first pitch before the Sooners' game against TCU on April 6 at L. Dale Mitchell Park.

NORMAN, Okla. — Skip Johnson was holding exit meetings with players and meeting with his Oklahoma assistant coaches this past week. He thought about the departures from last season.

The heart of the Sooners’ hitting order from 2018 was gone, as was its entire starting outfield.

“Would you ever thought, if you're a betting man, that we'd have 30-33 wins and get the opportunity go into a regional [considering the roster turnover]?” Johnson said.

There was some comfort in that.

But with NCAA regional tournaments in full swing this weekend, OU had extra time on its hands. It didn’t make the field. Two lopsided Big 12 tournament losses by a combined 18 runs and a 4-12 record against top-50 RPI teams were too costly.

The Sooners still finished 33-23 after replacing nearly 60 percent of their pitching staff and more than 50 percent of the offense from the previous year.

The start to the season — a 21-5 overall and early 3-0 record in Big 12 conference play — had OU looking like the league’s surprise team before it lost 5 of 6 not long after and scuffled down the stretch.

Depending on which Sooners enter the Major League Baseball Draft, youth could be an issue again for the 2020 team. Still, they figure to return a strong pitching staff, which ranked top 20 nationally in earned-run average this past spring.

The weekend rotation of Cade Cavalli, junior Nathan Wiles and sophomore Levi Prater was impressive. But the offense was inconsistent, enough that a young bullpen had its back against the wall too often.

“Our mindset and our presence at times, our mental toughness with quality at-bats,” Johnson said, pointing to the struggles. “Same thing with the mental toughness later in the year with the pitching. It could have been better.

“Our defense played a high level all year long. Our pitching was at a high level, then low level, high level. Our offense was at a medium level to a low level.”

Freshmen relievers — Jaret Godman, Wyatt Olds — and others who were still just sophomores — Ledgend Smith, Zack Matthews, Aaron Brooks — went through ups and downs.

Wiles could enter the draft, which begins Monday.

But in Cavalli, OU has one more year with a highly regarded talent. As a sophomore he successfully moved into a starting pitcher/designated hitter role and finished the season with a 5-3 record on the mound and 3.28 earned-run average, to go with a .319 batting average.

“He should be a candidate for Team USA,” Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez said. “He’s going to be something pretty special.”

Johnson wants the offense to improve after it averaged 5.5 runs per game and hit .266 overall. The Sooners will return leading hitter Tyler Hardman, who batted .306 with 42 RBIs.

OU’s top recruit, Bobby Witt Jr., is expected to be drafted high and sign with a major league team. Others from a recruiting class ranked 18th nationally by Perfect Game could do the same.

The Sooners tried manufacturing more runs late in the season with hit-and-run calls, but never executed as well as Johnson hoped. The goal is to have a better identity next season.

“They'll continue to get better and basically that offense, it should click over with more of a little bit more high-pressure offense so to speak,” Johnson said. “And you know, we're not going to change what we do on the mound.

“This ballpark is an offensive dream. Offensively, this is where you want to come to school. You know, this ballpark's tough on pitchers but if you can pitch here you can go pitch at a high level a lot of places. One good thing about it with our reputation with pitchers, we're going to continue to get good arms and we're going to continue to develop those guys.”