When the Sooners take the field on Wednesday, May 22, to open up Big 12 Tournament play, opposing them will be the Baylor Bears, who took Oklahoma to 12 innings before winning the series finale between the two teams on April 14.
If anything close to a repeat of the Sooners’ longest game of the season ensues in the tournament, a big opportunity to get outs will be put in the hands of the closer, who is often tasked with retiring the last out of the ballgame.
Luckily for Oklahoma, it has a reliable closer in the back of the bullpen. He leads the Big 12 in saves, is an All-Big 12 Second Team selection and is a team leader who has positively influenced younger pitchers. He is Jason Ruffcorn, a junior right-hander who throws from the 3/4 arm slot and has a value that goes beyond stats and accolades.
Most importantly, he will be prepared.
Any closer — whether he’s the greatest ever or just another guy — sits in the bullpen each game uncertain whether or not his name will need to be called. On any given night, he could perhaps never need to warm-up or, of course, he could very well be called in needing to retire three hitters with his team leading by one run in the ninth.
“Knowing the game of baseball, if you’ve been around it for a long time you never know what’s going to happen,” Ruffcorn said. “You have to be ready at all times to do whatever anyone needs, if it’s a 10-1 game or a 2-1 game you have to be ready to do your job.”
Ruffcorn was uncertain on a completely different scale, but he — like the prototypical closer — was ready for his opportunity. After transferring to Oklahoma from Texas A&M during the summer of 2018, Ruffcorn trained with the team in the fall unsure whether or not he would be eligible to pitch come opening day. He made friends, showed off his arm during practice and began to establish himself as a leader all before he knew he could suit up come February.
The Big 12 leader in saves through the end of the regular season notched the first of his 11 saves on opening day against Cal Poly, just hours after he was granted his eligibility to pitch for the Sooners. But in the weeks and days leading up to the season opener, Ruffcorn prepared as if he were going to pitch all along.
“I was hoping (to be eligible),” Ruffcorn said. “I wanted it so I figured I might as well be ready and if not then it doesn’t happen but I want to be ready just in case (compliance) pulls through and they did pull through.
“It was stressful for sure, not knowing if I was going to play, but compliance did a good job fighting for me and whatnot. It all seemed to come together at the last moment and it was perfect.”
Not a single one of Ruffcorn’s 11 saves and 29 total appearances — both of which sit atop the conference leaderboards — would sit in the record books if it weren’t for a pair of phone calls. The two calls were approximately eight months apart and revolved around different topics and concerns, but the callers on the lines stayed consistent.
Ruffcorn says he remembers the exact time of the second phone call.
At 9 a.m. on January 15 just hours before Oklahoma would take the field against Cal Poly on opening day, Ruffcorn was walking out of class when Skip Johnson called with good news: He was eligible.
Just hours earlier, the NCAA contacted the Oklahoma compliance team with the confirmation of the news the Sooners had long been waiting for — the confirmation that Ruffcorn would be granted a waiver to compete. The final decision capped off months of the compliance team submitting information to the NCAA and Ruffcorn having to constantly communicate with the Oklahoma and Texas A&M compliance teams, Executive Director Jason Leonard and Director of Eligibility Christopher Sokol said.
“It’s never on the timeline that you want,” Leonard said. “It always takes more but in terms of stuff that we do within the compliance office I have to say that getting someone eligible when they’re not expected to be eligible is one of the most rewarding things we do.”
Eight months earlier, Ruffcorn had just been granted his release from Texas A&M and was looking for a team in which he could continue his baseball career. Ruffcorn was a familiar with the name ‘Skip Johnson’ from his prep baseball days in the Austin area. Johnson was an assistant coach at the University of Texas from 2007-2016.
“I called Skip, and I knew him from awhile ago so I called him and just talked with him and he wanted me and I wanted to be here,” Ruffcorn said.
Ruffcorn fit in with the team from the very beginning, Johnson said, and has also served as a mentor for the many freshman and sophomore relievers on the roster.
“He’s been a team guy ever since he’s been here,” Johnson said. “You bring guys in that transfer from other programs, you don’t know what you’re gonna get.”
Ruffcorn says his mindset toward pitching has greatly improved since joining the Johnson-led Sooners. The benefits are mutual, too, as Oklahoma now has a go-to closer at the back of the bullpen, which is especially helpful due to the pre-season injury to junior left-hander Braidyn Fink. Johnson says he wanted Ruffcorn on his roster mainly for the opportunity it would give the right-hander.
“There is no other place I would rather be right now,” Ruffcorn said with a smile.
The No. 7 seed Sooners are set to take the field against No. 2 Baylor at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, May 22, in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament. Ruffcorn will sit out in the bullpen to begin the game as he has done all season, but his mind is focused on the moment he trots out to the mound in the biggest moment of the game.