NORMAN — Most teams celebrate when they eliminate a regional host and advance to a regional championship game. Oklahoma didn’t even come close to that last Sunday in Charlottesville, Va.
Less than a minute after shaking hands, the Sooners went down the left-field line and faced the wrath of Sooner coach Sunny Golloway.
“There are programs where the goal every year is Omaha. It’s not to win the conference, it’s to host a regional, to host a Super Regional, it’s to get to Omaha,” he said. “If we’re gonna get there, we’re gonna have to play defense.”
It was the vast chink in the Sooners’ armor in the Charlottesville Regional. The Sooners committed nine in errors in their five games.
The Virginia game summed up how fortunate OU was to advance. It committed three errors, and that doesn’t even count the Cavaliers scoring two runs in the ninth inning on a ball that dropped between second baseman Jack Mayfield and right fielder Cody Reine, because neither called the ball.
It’s what led to Golloway’s emotional outburst minutes after a big victory.
“We’ve known we’re lucky to get where we’re at,” Mayfield said. “We know we can play good defense because we’ve shown it before.”
Defense is a key to winning in the postseason. Sixteen teams reached the Super Regional series. Five of them — LSU, South Carolina, Stony Brook, Oregon and Florida — rank in the top 10 in total defense.
To get to the College World Series, the Sooners (42-23) have to win a best-of-three series against the Gamecocks (43-17), beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday at Carolina Stadium in Columbia, S.C.
One of the reasons South Carolina is playing for three straight national championships this year is that it doesn’t give games away. It’s currently fourth in the nation in fielding percentage (.980). Over 60 games, it has only allowed 18 unearned runs. The Sooners have allowed 47.
But the Sooners have shown a remarkable ability to overcome the mistakes. Some teams have that knack. While five of the teams still playing are great fielding teams, five more, including OU at No. 117 (.968) rank outside the top 100 in fielding percentage.
Clearly, advancing in the NCAA tournament can ride on catching breaks and making the most of them. There’s no statistic for that. But when it came to getting opportune hits last week, the Sooners ranked pretty high.
They did it because they gambled on the base paths, didn’t swing at bad pitches and refused to avoid any ball that they could hit.
“A lot of times when you have eight hits, you expect to have four runs. We’re not built that way. I try to match where we have a run per hit,” Golloway said. “I know that sounds crazy, but you see the risk we’ll take on the base path to do it. We’re gonna get thrown out sometimes, and that’s OK, too. We can’t sit around and wait for a three-run homer. It’s not gonna happen very often.”
If it does, that three-run homer is going to be enough to overcome three unearned runs. South Carolina is too good to allow that to happen.
The Sooners have proven all season that their pitching is dominant enough to mask deficiencies and good enough to get to the College World Series. They need two wins at South Carolina to get there. It can’t do it without being flawless in the field.
John Shinn 366-3536 firstname.lastname@example.org