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Oklahoma baseball hopes to surprise in NCAA Tournament

Eddie On3by:Eddie Radosevich06/02/23

Fear. Hope. Relief. Accomplishment. A handful of emotions the Oklahoma baseball team went through last weekend as the NCAA Committee decided its fate Monday.

Then their name was called. The season continues. Time to go back to work. The weight of the world had been lifted.

Oklahoma opens the NCAA Tournament Friday night versus East Carolina in the Charlottesville Regional. Sure, this season has gone far from expectation after last season’s run to Omaha. But the goal of a return trip is still alive after getting their postseason assignment.

“I think they’ve been really excited. For some sort of reason, it’s like a weight lifted off their shoulders,” said Skip Johnson before the Sooners final practice in Norman. “Like they were expected to go back to Omaha after playing for the national championship last year.

“I don’t know if they put that expectation on themselves because we didn’t as coaches. I think our expectation every year is to make a regional and fight for the College World Series. We’re just excited about the journey continuing to go on and go to Omaha.”

That’s all you can ask for is a chance. Get hot and go on a run. It’s happened before. Baseball can be a funny game. Ask 2008 Fresno State. Ask Ole Miss. Better yet ask John Spikerman. He saw it first-hand a year ago.

“Just the energy in regionals and super regionals. The environments are awesome. Playing in nice places. SEC schools and ACC schools like last year,” Spikerman said. “It’s just a different vibe.

“It’s a new season. We talk about being 0-0 right now. We’re going to take advantage of the opportunity given. Everybody is on an even playing field now. Playoff baseball is a lot different than what we’ve been doing.”

SPIKERMAN BACK TO DRIVING THE OFFENSE

What Oklahoma hopes doesn’t change is Spikerman’s approach at the plate where he’s returned to being a catalyst at the top of Reggie Willits’ lineup. During the month of May, he hit .396 with 13 walks, nine runs and four stolen bases.

But it’s not just getting on base and tracking down fly balls in centerfield that Spikerman can help with. He’s been there before. You know the there. Omaha.

“We were just grateful to get the opportunity to play again,” Spikerman said. “I think we learned that if we keep the gas pedal down and keep grinding we’ll find ways give ourselves a shot like this.

“We’re not going there to participate in a regional. We’re going there to win. We’ve got some good competition. Looking forward to playing East Carolina first game. They’re a really good team and then Virginia obviously as the host. Army is probably one of the better four seeds in the country, so it’ll be fun.”

CARMICHAEL FINAL RUN

Oklahoma will hand the ball to the senior left-hander Braden Carmichael on Friday.

Before Monday’s announcement he didn’t know if he and his teammates would get another opportunity this season.

“I was taking it at like a minute at a time, watching every game. I was trying to figure out every scenario,” Carmichael said. “We were feeling good but when you sit there forever you start thinking, ‘what about this? what about that?’

“We had to stay on our routine and our daily recovery stuff to expect our name called and that’s what happened. We were all prepared for it. Had a good two last days of practice so it’s been good.”

In a season that had its fair share of ups and downs on the mound, Carmichael has been a constant. He won seven consecutive starts on the back end of the Sooners regular season, solidifying Friday night for a starting rotation that searched for consistency.

It’s been a dream of a senior season throwing to his younger brother, Easton, and one that the Carmichael family hope doesn’t end in Charlottesville.

“It’s been pretty special, been pretty unreal. Obviously, I’ll take a step back when it’s all done, but the main goal is still in front of us,” said Carmichael.

Something Oklahoma fans should be thankful for. It was never guaranteed.

WORK CUT OUT

There’s no hiding in the NCAA Tournament. It sounds cliché, but everyone that laces up the cleats has earned their way to this weekend. East Carolina is a great example of that.

Just a few weeks ago they were in contention to be one of the 16 host sites. They’ve done that four times since 2018. They are third in country in wins and eleven Pirates were all-conference selections.

They’ve made three straight Super Regional appearances (excluding the 2020 COVID-shortened season), losing back-to-back games to Texas last season with the Horns going on to Omaha.

There’s a comfort in performing this time of the year on baseball’s big stage. A culture of postseason success that Skip Johnson credits longtime East Carolina head coach Cliff Godwin.

“Cliff (Godwin) has done a really good job. They’ve been successful for the last four or five years. They all look older, look really athletic. They have some pitchers that are back. It’s going to be a great opportunity for us for sure,” said Johnson.

And that might be putting it lightly. They’ve been really, really good. This season’s Pirates have been dominant at times and a lot of that has to do with starting pitching.

As a staff they rank fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.19), fifth in WHIP (1.26) and eighth in walks allowed per nine innings (3.19). They’re among the top 20 nationally in strikeouts per nine innings, hits allowed per nine innings and ERA (4.30).

Oklahoma is expected to get the Pirates best when Trey Yesavage takes the bump on Friday. A hurler that doesn’t give much to the opponent, making scoring opportunities that much more important. Yesavage ranks 11th nationally in WHIP (0.99) and 17th in strikeouts per nine innings (12.48).

You probably get the picture. Oklahoma has its work cut out for them.

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