By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Pete Hughes admitted two weeks ago that the pitching staff, which the first-year Oklahoma baseball coach labeled the deepest he’s ever coached, still presents quandaries.
Take guys like sophomore left-hander Jacob Evans and second-year sophomore Ralph Garza Jr. Are they more valuable in the starting rotation or out of the bullpen?
Starters can impact games once a week. Relievers can easily alter the outcome of every game in a three-game series, if so needed.
The Sooners will get a sense when they face Seton Hall at 3 p.m. today in the season opener and the beginning of a three-game series at L. Dale Mitchell Park.
Evans, who was OU’s closer last season and named a freshman All-American after going 7-2 with nine saves, will move to that once-a-week spot.
The left-hander with the dominant change-up will take the mound today. Redshirt sophomore Adam Choplick will take the mound Saturday with freshman Jacob Elliot getting the ball in the series finale.
Moving into the starting rotation is a natural progression for college pitchers. Most start out in the bullpen and build their stamina. Then they become starters as sophomores and juniors.
“There’s about six or seven guys in there that are going to be our rotation guys,” Hughes said. “We’re not gonna call them our top three because sometimes the most valuable guy is the one in the bullpen.”
Garza, who went 5-1 in 24 appearances with a 2.76 ERA, remains in the bullpen and could very well be the glue for the entire pitching staff.
Neither he nor Evans lobbied for a shift to the starting rotation.
“It really comes down to being ready for whatever you’re needed to do,” Garza said.
The starting rotation is the biggest hole OU has to fill going into the season. The last two seasons Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton filled two of those spots and they gave it one of the best 1-2 starting rotations in college baseball.
Both are professionals now. Their exits — along with departed senior Jake Fisher — has opened the Sooners’ entire weekend rotation.
Evans gets his shot at the No. 1 spot. It comes with the most pressure. He’ll be facing other teams’ aces in what are typically low-scoring games. A lot of those games are decided by one pitch that catches too much of the plate.
Evans faced a lot of pressure-packed situations as the closer last season. He believes he’s ready.
“Last year I got my feet in the water and learned a ton of things. There’s a ton of things going from high school baseball to college baseball that you have to learn,” Evans said. “Getting all that under my belt last year is going to help me this year.”
Getting those roles filled is the challenge of the season. Some years, everything falls into place early and it turns into a relatively smooth ride. More often than not, there’s turbulence because those roles are constantly shifting around due to injuries, ineffectiveness or — if OU’s lucky — pitchers proving they’re capable of handling more than they’ve initially been given.
“We’ve got plenty of guys capable of stepping up and filling the shoes that were left behind for them,” catcher Anthony Hermelyn said. “I don’t think they are scared of filling those shoes left for them, either.”
What happens this weekend is just a starting point.
But OU has its two best returning pitchers ready to fill the staff’s two biggest roles.
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