NORMAN — In two weeks, the Pete Hughes era of Oklahoma baseball will officially begin. He admitted Saturday at the program’s media day that he was still in the feeling out process.
There was nothing close to a full lineup card made out. The decision on a weekend rotation was still at least a week away.
But he did offer one approach that will differ from former coach Sunny Golloway.
“I just like to put pressure on the defense, but I do like these guys to be their own little hitters and not be so controlled by the guy at third base. I’m not going to do that,” he said. “I think if guys can get comfortable in playing and not worried about hitting and running and bunting or stealing and just hitting and getting caught up in their approach, guys get better and more productive. So that’s my plan for this year.”
The offensive philosophical change may or may not be apparent when the Sooners open the season with a three-game series against Seton Hall Feb. 14 at L. Dale Mitchell Park.
“It’s different than the small-ball approach,” sophomore outfielder Craig Aikin said. “Coming into the season, we’re gonna stand up there and try to out-swing people. There’s still gonna be a place for my drag bunt, but my drag bunt will set up an RBI double for someone else.”
Aikin is one of three freshmen All-Americans that are back as sophomores. Catcher Anthony Hermelyn and closer Jacob Evans join him.
Getting players like those to make the expected leap most players make from their first year in the program to the second is an essential element for this team.
For Hermelyn, adding some power at the plate is essential. He hit .275 last season and drove in 26 runs, but only six of his 49 hits went for extra bases.
The grind of catching every day was part of it. But he’s dropped 20 pounds since last season and feels like a different player and hitter.
“The game has really slowed down for me at the end of last year, and going into the fall it slowed down even more,” Hermelyn said. “I’m excited to get out there and face a real opponent.”
Hughes admitted one thing he hasn’t adapted to since arriving from Virginia Tech six months ago is the state’s weather. The only thing he knows for sure is there is no guarantee which way the wind will blow or whether to wear short sleeves or a parka to the ballpark.
Saturday, the Sooners scrimmaged with the temperature below 40 degrees most of the day. The previous weekend it was in the 60s. They’ll likely spend a lot of this week practicing indoors.
Hot or cold, the Sooners must figure out a way to score runs. They averaged just 5.48 runs per game last season and hit .282 as a team. The only .300 hitters from the everyday lineup — Matt Oberste and Max White — are gone. They, along with Jack Mayfield, connected for 21 of OU’s 31 home runs. Mayfield also graduated last spring.
Hughes admits he doesn’t know for sure how OU will replace them at the plate. The best way to build hitters is to let them hit. But that doesn’t mean wild hacks are welcome.
“Our focus is on not striking out,” second baseman Hector Lorenzana said. “When we get two strikes, we choke and get close to the plate and make sure you don’t strike out. Our mentality is to not give up outs.”
The Sooners may not have guaranteed high-round draft picks on its pitching staff like Jonathan Gray or Dillon Overton last season. But Hughes called OU’s current pitching staff the deepest and most talented he’s been associated with as he enters his 18th season as a college head coach.
Pitching carried OU to Super Regional appearances the previous two seasons. They’ll be asked to shoulder the load again this year.
“It’s just a matter of piecing the right parts together and getting guys in the roles they are comfortable in and best suited for us to win games,” he said.
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