• Sooners’ multi-tasking Hughes has come a long way



At this time last season, Oklahoma’s Joseph Hughes didn’t know when or if he was going to set foot on the diamond. He was a role player, and initially his role wasn’t much.

He sparingly played some center field. Cracking the lineup was hard with the Sooners having so many established players.

“I sat on the bench, which was fine,” he said. “That was my role and I understood that.”

Slowly but surely, that role expanded. It seems like Hughes, a senior, has a knack for always giving a little more than expected.

His glove helped him nail down the center field job late last season, but his bat helped pull OU into the NCAA Super Regional series against Rice. Hughes hit .500 (11-for-22) in the NCAA Tournament with eight RBIs.

By the time OU’s season ended in late June, there was no doubt who was going to be in the middle of the outfield this season.

Hughes earned the reputation as one of, if not the best, defensive outfielders in the Big 12. He gets to balls most don’t and has the respect of third base coaches everywhere.

He’ll get to show that talent when the Sooners (20-7, 2-1 Big 12) open a three-game series at Texas (23-8, 5-1) at Disch-Falk Field at 6 tonight.

It’s a huge series for a number of reasons. Forget the fact it’s one of the fiercest rivalries in college sports. Both teams are ranked in Baseball America’s Top 25. The Longhorns, who have won 10 straight, come in at No. 7. The Sooners, winners of 18 of their last 21, have risen to No. 17.

The winner of the series will take a big step toward winning the Big 12 title.

“It’s another barn-burner,” OU coach Sunny Golloway said.

The key to winning in Austin is pitching and defense. The ballpark’s cavernous dimensions make it a pitcher’s heaven. It can also be an outfielder’s hell. Balls that make it into the gaps can turn into triples in a hurry.

It’s a ballpark that requires a center fielder like Hughes.

“If he had one tool on a major-league scale, say speed or power, he’d play in the big leagues,” said OU assistant coach Tim Tadlock, who was also Hughes’ head coach at Grayson (Texas) Community College. “What separates him is his instincts. He gets to the balls all the big league guys get to.”

But his value goes beyond what he can do with his glove or his bat.

With left-handed pitching at a premium, Hughes’ role has expanded even more this season. He’s 4-1 with a 3.67 earned run average through seven starts.

Hughes will likely be on the mound for Sunday’s series finale.

“He can adapt to anything,” OU shortstop Aaron Reza said. “He doesn’t let anything bother him. He’s tough.”

Much like the Sooner program, Hughes has come a long way in less than two seasons. He went from a sparingly used outfielder to one of the most valuable players in this season’s first half.

And he’s not interested in settling in anywhere either.

“Playing at this level and playing two positions, it’s definitely an honor,” he said. “Any way I can help the team win I’m going to try to do it.”

John Shinn

366-3536

jshinn@normantranscript.com

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