The Norman Transcript

March 23, 2014

Another big inning gives Sooners shot at sweep today

By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Oklahoma’s offensive style shifted with the arrival of coach Pete Hughes’ first season in the dugout. Sacrifice bunt attempts have nearly vanished because Hughes detests giving up outs. He wants a lineup stuffed with sluggers overwhelmingly confident that well-timed swings will produce runs.

The way OU continued to brandish the bats against Kansas State on Saturday at L. Dale Mitchell Park exhibited the approach’s merits.

The 11-2 victory over the Wildcats marked the second straight game OU (18-6, 2-0 Big 12) has had an eight-run inning, and fourth time in the last five games it has scored at least nine runs and belted out a minimum of 12 hits.

Kansas State (13-0, 0-2 Big 12) was that kind of team a year ago. It led the conference in virtually every offensive statistic en route to winning the Big 12 regular-season title. The Wildcats have put up similar numbers this season.

In the conference-opening series for both teams, however, OU has done the bashing.

“We’ve been able to out-hit these guys and compete with them at the plate,” said OU third baseman Sheldon Neuse, who drove in the game-winning run with a double off the left-field wall in the bottom of the seventh inning. “Putting up the runs we have has been big for us. I think it sends a message as well.”

The message: Good luck uncovering easy outs in the Sooners’ lineup.

On Saturday, Mac James went 2 for 4 with an eighth-inning grand slam homer, Hector Lorenzana went 3 for 4 with an RBI and Craig Aikin drove in a run during his 2-for-4 afternoon.

Where they hit in the lineup displays the dilemma the Wildcats’ pitching staff has faced.

James, who hit in the cleanup spot on Saturday along with catching all nine innings, has been the hottest hitter in the Big 12 for more than a month. Lorenzana has hit in the bottom of the order most of the season. Aikin is OU’s leadoff batter.

Most teams have a couple of guys heat up from time to time. If they’re lucky enough to have guys on base when they come to the plate, they can carry a team. But that typically falls apart after a couple of games. Hot hitters quickly run out of pitches to hit — especially when it’s a Big 12 foe toeing the rubber.

The Sooners believe their lineup — one through nine — has the ability to break a game open at any time. They were 15 for 37 on Saturday, lifting their team batting average to a conference-best .312 through 24 games.

“It feels like everyone’s timing is spot on right now,” Lorenzana said. “I think everyone is seeing the ball well.”

Kansas State’s bullpen absorbed most of the punishment.

Starting pitcher Jared Moore went 42⁄3 innings, allowing two runs on six hits. When he left, the game was tied. The Sooners roughed up Jake Whaley (1-1), who took the loss, and Jake Matthys for a combined nine runs on nine hits over 22⁄3 innings.

The Sooners did not take the lead until Neuse’s RBI double in the bottom of the seventh inning off Whaley. Once they grabbed the advantage, an avalanche of runs followed. Seven of OU’s 15 hits and eight of the runs came in the eighth inning off Matthys.

James’ grand slam — his third homer of the season — was the emphatic blow and lifted the Sooners’ lead to 8-2 at the time. It was the second time in two games OU has separated itself from Kansas State on a bases-loaded blast. Hunter Haley belted a grand slam in the Sooners’ 11-4 win in Friday’s series opener.

Both are thriving under Hughes’ free-swinging approach.

“I think they understand my mindset when it comes to offensive baseball. Any baseball player is going to enjoy that because they’re not handcuffed in any other way,” Hughes said. “When you can play free and not worry about making mistakes or having bad swings, you tend to be a better offensive player.”

Kindle Ladd (1-0), one of four relievers OU used after starter Adam Choplick went 61⁄3 innings, picked up the victory. Choplick gave up the two runs in the top of the first inning. He and the bullpen blanked the Wildcats over the final eight frames.

John Shinn

Follow me @john_shinn

jshinn@normantranscript.com

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