The last time the Sooners played a Big 12 schedule in 2019, they placed seventh with an 11-13 conference record.
OU was 14-4 in 2020 and had yet to enter conference play when the season ended abruptly due to COVID-19. But Big 12 baseball has returned in 2021 and Oklahoma is rolling into its first conference games.
The Sooners (12-7) are on a six-game winning streak, including two wins over Arkansas State, a win over then No. 1 Arkansas, and a three-game sweep of Houston. The OU bats provided the firepower, with 67 runs scored on 80 hits, while the pitching provided adequate support, allowing just 17 runs on 31 hits.
“It’s always an exciting time to start conference play,” head coach Skip Johnson said in a Tuesday press conference. “What we got to do is continue what we’ve been doing and have the same mindset.
OU officially opens conference play against Texas, although it already played a Big 12 opponent, beating Baylor, 9-3, on Feb. 28 in the Round Rock Classic. The Sooners also built a strong non conference resume by defeating No. 17 Auburn, 4-3, on Feb. 26 and Arkansas, 8-5, on March 16.
“I think it helps us a lot,” Johnson said of playing a tough nonconference slate. “I think playing those teams and playing those close games, you can learn from your mistakes and they can show you where your weaknesses are. It helps us fight through those.”
Big 12 teams haven’t weakened since 2019. Currently, four Big 12 teams are ranked by D1 Baseball, including No. 6 Texas Tech, No. 9 Texas, No. 13 TCU, and No. 20 Oklahoma State. No Big 12 team has a losing record in 2021 either. Unlike their Big 12 foes, the Sooners were left out of every major top 25 poll this week despite their recent three-game sweep of Houston.
“It ain’t about trying to make a statement,” Johnson said. “It’s about playing good baseball. That’d be a big enough statement itself.”
The Sooners wanted to be efficient in all aspects going into conference play. They’ve done that, with the pitching turning a corner at the right time. It’s especially true for Wyatt Olds, who turned in a career-high 10 strikeouts in a win over Houston on March 19, earning his first win in his fifth start.
The Sooners’ offense is also continuing to get better. OU sits second in the Big 12 in team batting average at .322 and consistently finds ways to score more runs.
Players like redshirt senior second baseman Conor McKenna, redshirt senior shortstop Brandon Zaragoza and redshirt junior catcher Jimmy Crooks were the main contributors against Houston. They combined for 21 RBIs in the series.
“I think our whole approach is… we continue to get better,” Johnson said of the offense. “Once you start understanding what you’re doing, you see the maturity of the at-bats that we have.”
The Sooners will play one nonconference game against Texas State (8-13) at 6 p.m. CT on March 24. Afterward, OU opens up Big 12 play against rival Texas (14-6) in the first game of a three-game series at 7 p.m. CT on Friday.
The Longhorns completed a three-game sweep of then No. 12 South Carolina on March 14. They’re led by sophomore pitcher Ty Madden, who has 3-1 record, 1.62 earned run average and 44 strikeouts, and junior third baseman Cam Williams, who has a team-high four home runs. The matchup presents a tough challenge for the Sooners to begin their conference slate.
“It’s all about their attitudes, it’s about their mindsets,” Johnson said. “If their attitudes and mindsets are right, we’ll continue to play good baseball.”