By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — There’s one scenario Oklahoma would love to play out three times over the next three days. If the Sooners could have Ralph Garza Jr. on the mound for the ninth inning in all three games, they would be ecstatic.
“There’s an aura around him that when he gets out there it’s three outs and the game is over,” said OU’s Mac James who has caught some of those ninth innings with Garza on the mound. “I think other teams are starting to think that, too.”
Really good closers bring that kind of intimidation aspect to the mound. OU (23-11, 4-2 Big 12) would love to have it when it opens a three-game series with Texas (26-8, 6-3) at 6 p.m. today at L. Dale Mitchell Park.
For OU, the bullpen has been a calming influence on a young team. Starting pitching has been up and down. Defense has been shaky. Offense has been feast or famine.
The relief pitching, however, has smothered rallies and held leads all season using a combination of left-handers and right-handers. The moves change from game to game. But they’re all designed to get to the last one — Garza.
“I trust that kid like I’ve trusted very few guys at the back end of a game,” OU coach Pete Hughes said. “We’re making all our moves knowing that he’s at the back end of the game … We’re basically designing the game to get the ball to Ralph.”
Usually, it takes several seasons to build that kind of trust with a coaching staff. Garza has done it in less than three months.
It’s hard not to feel good about a guy who sports a 0.71 ERA, 4-0 record and seven saves in 20 appearances.
But Garza had no intention of turning into a dominant closer. As a freshman, he did a bit of everything last season. The right-hander went 5-1 with a 2.76 ERA. One of those starts was a complete-game victory over Oral Roberts .
The natural jump for pitchers who experience success as freshman is into the weekend rotation as a sophomore. Garza admits he hoped that would be the case.
Hughes’ was cognizant of that. But the potential to use Garza three times in a conference series elevates Garza’s value.
“Coming out of the bullpen means I can pitch in a lot more games and that’s more fun for me,” Garza said. “Being able to come in late in games is always fun.”
Quality relievers are tough to find in college baseball, much less a dominant closer. All are recruited based on what they’ve shown in high school or junior college as starters. They get the chance to ease into the game and build momentum over a couple innings.
The attributes that make for the best closer isn’t necessarily an overpowering arm — though it greatly helps. It’s an unflappable mentality that’s most needed.
Ideally, you’d love to give them the ball at the start of the ninth inning, but sometimes it’s the eighth with two runners on and no outs. No matter the circumstance, he has to handle it.
“I try to always calm myself down before I get in there,” Garza said. “You never want the moment to get the best of you. I want to focus on what I’m supposed to do.”
OU pitching coach Jamie Pinzino saw back in the fall that Garza had that kind of focus. The hard-to-teach ability to zero in on the task at hand and block out everything else was prevalent.
“Ralph has a great temperament for being a closer because he’s very competitive, but he’s very calm in those situations,” Pinzino said. “He’s the same guy whether he’s in a four-run game or we bring him in with guys on base in a tie game. We know what we’re going to get from him. He’s going to stay relaxed and throw it in the bottom of the strike zone.”
It’s not complicated. Nevertheless, only a select few handle the stress. Those last three outs are the toughest to get in baseball. The pressure causes some to buckle. Garza seems to thrive in it.
“For some reason, those last three outs don’t bother me and don’t seem to affect me,” he said.
The Sooners would love their chances against the Longhorns if they could put Garza in that spot three times this weekend. That’s the plan.
Follow me @john_shinn
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