Seventeen comeback wins are either a reflection of Josh Holliday’s lion heart or an early sign of disaster for Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys have the best record in the Big 12 (31-13 overall, 13-5 conference) but they have taken the strangest path to getting there.
“It’s been a weird season, man,” second baseman Tim Arakawa said. “We may be down, but we’re never out.”
Opponents beat the Cowboys nearly 2-1 in the first inning (+1.84 run differential) but OSU outscores its opponents at the same clip over the remaining eight innings. That means OSU’s starters are useless in the first inning, on average, but the team recovers by doubling its opponents’ score for the rest of the game. The real question is, why?
Rex Holt is in his 32nd season as the radio play-by-play man for the Cowboys on 93.7 KSPI-FM. He has called a lot of baseball games but he hasn’t seen anything like this.
“I don’t know if there is any rhyme or reason to it,” Holt said. “Baseball kind of has its quirks and every team is different. We haven’t gotten great starts, that’s for sure.”
Not that Holt is pulling his hair out over the deal, the booth has been good to his sweet locks. But even for OSU’s coaches, there’s only so much that can be done; it might be a problem only time can fix.
Underclassmen have started 21 of OSU’s 44 games and compiled a 3.93 ERA. They have won at an acceptable rate but it has been largely thanks to strong relief efforts. Pitching coach Rob Walton has is able to play the waiting game.
“They’re going to go through some growing pains and you’ve got to grow with ‘em,” Walton said.
“There’s a point where we’re going to have to put a freshman out there, and freshmen can be freshmen… 18- or 19-year-olds, overexcited, trying to do too much, trying to throw too hard.”
Luckily for Walton, his specialty pitchers, seniors Vince Wheeland and Brendan McCurry, have been incredible in relief.
They saved the season a year ago and they’re doing it again, trashing opposing batting averages at a record setting pace. In OSU’s series sweep of Kansas a week ago, McCurry set a school record with his 11th save.
He entire swath of pitches is untouchable. McCurry has an 0.53 ERA, giving up only two earned runs in 34 innings. Wheeland, meanwhile, sports a 1.46 ERA in 55 1/3.
“Rob Walton is a believer that you can win championships that way,” Holt said. “If you’re OK in starting pitching and you’re great in the bullpen, it’s a better formula than if it were the other way around.”
Certainly OSU’s coaching staff would prefer to see it’s young pitchers outlast the top of the order, but these guys are young, and Walton and Holliday get it.
“Everybody knows once they get through the first inning it a big relief,” Walton said. “Out here, that’s all at a higher level in their minds, you gotta find a way to get through it. Once they’ve got through it, they’ve really thrown well after it, they’ve thrown up a lot of zeros.”
For a while, freshman reliever Blake Battenfield was immune to the struggle. He pitched 27 shutout innings before he found out how far his fastball can travel in the wrong direction.
“You can’t just throw cookies in there or you’re going to get hit,” Battenfield said.
In a 16-6 loss to Texas Tech, the Cowboys used five pitchers and each gave up at least two runs, most of them to Adam Kirsch. He homered in the second inning against Tyler Buffett, got a three-run double in the third off Thomas Hatch, and added a three-run homer in the sixth off Mark Robinette.
In their next appearances, none of them gave up more than one run.
“The guy on the mound can dictate good hitting or he’ll dictate bad hitting depending on how well he is able to execute pitches,” Walton said. “Just like giving up the runs and then no hitting somebody for eight innings or no hitting somebody for six; there’s a reason for that; it doesn’t just flip flop that fast. It’s because the execution rate goes from one extreme to the other.”
Baseball is dictated by what happens on the mound more than any other position. So, when a team lacks a reliable starter, the batters absorb the pressure. Such is the case in Stillwater.
OSU has won nine games in the final two innings.
“The pitchers go out and compete every single day,” first baseman Tanner Krietemeier said. “So, if they give up a couple of runs in the first inning we can come back as hitters and score.”
Krietemeier is second on the team with seven home runs and 28 RBI, though he doesn’t identify as a power hitter. Lately, it has been a game of sacrifice for the Cowboys, anyway.
Holliday said he doesn’t care how the wins come, but he doesn’t dismiss the importance of a rally, either.
“I’d like to see them start every game better,” Holliday said. “But at the same time, you cannot deny a team’s ability to win.
“If a team is down 21-0 nothing in the first quarter of football and they rally back to win, everyone thinks that’s amazing. No one talks about the fact that you were down 21-0 in the first quarter; a win is a win.”
Ranked 9th nationally, OSU looks like a dangerous team from the outside. But this first-inning intangible may have a strong bearing on the postseason.
A year ago, the Cowboys faced tough pitching against Miami and Louisville and couldn’t get runs in late innings. That kind of thing can easily repeat itself, but don’t count on these players to see it as a burden, the feed off Holliday’s infectious winning attitude.
“That’s something that’s been in this program the last few years, late inning wins,” outfielder Aaron Cornell said. “I think it shows a lot of character, not giving up, I think that’s really good to have in Big 12 games.”