Commentary

Oliver happy to be back on mound

Originally Published: May 30, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

CLEMSON, S.C. -- A year ago, Oklahoma State pitcher Andrew Oliver could only watch on his computer and listen on his radio as his team was eliminated from an NCAA tournament regional in its own stadium in Stillwater, Okla.

Oliver, one of college baseball's most promising left-handed pitchers, had been ruled ineligible by Oklahoma State and the NCAA on the eve of the 2008 Stillwater Regional. The NCAA alleged Oliver broke its rules by having an agent in the room while he negotiated a contract with the Minnesota Twins, who drafted him in the 17th round of the 2006 amateur draft.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Oliver
Courtesy Mark Crammer Clemson Sports InformationAndrew Oliver struck out six batters and allowed only two earned runs in Oklahoma State's 3-2 victory over Clemson.

Never mind that Oliver never signed to play for the Twins and never accepted money. The NCAA was only upset that he sought legal advice before making one of the most important decisions of his life.

The NCAA doesn't have a problem leaving John Calipari in the room with recruits. It just doesn't want attorneys in the room with their clients.

"It was rough," Oliver said. "I just wanted to play baseball and go on with my life."

If only it were ever that easy when the NCAA is involved.

A year after the NCAA's decision, Oliver finally pitched in an NCAA tournament regional Saturday night. He threw two-run ball over 7 1/3 innings, leading the No. 3-seeded Cowboys to a 3-2 upset over top seed Clemson at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

The Pokes, who knocked off No. 2 seed Alabama on Friday, will play again Sunday. OSU plays the winner of Sunday's earlier game between Clemson and No. 4 seed Tennessee Tech. The winner of that game will have to beat the Cowboys twice to advance to a super regional. OSU has to win only once more to advance to next weekend.

Oklahoma State, the team that lost seven of its past 11 regular-season games, finished 9-16 in Big 12 play and missed the conference tournament for the first time in 32 years, is suddenly in the driver's seat here.

"All of the guys want to win," said Oliver, who allowed eight hits with six strikeouts and one walk. "When we get into the tournament, it's a new life. Going out there and pitching, there's some extra adrenaline and it's exciting. You definitely can't get this kind of experience in a regular-season game."

Or when you're sitting in your apartment, while your teammates are playing for their postseason lives without you. After the NCAA suspended him, Oliver didn't attend last year's NCAA regional games at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium. He kept track of the Pokes' games on his computer and listened to them on his radio.

Without Oliver, who had a 7-2 record and 2.20 ERA last season, the Cowboys fell to Wichita State twice at home and were eliminated from the NCAA tournament.

It was rough. I just wanted to play baseball and go on with my life.

-- Andrew Oliver

"I hurt more so for him than anything," OSU coach Frank Anderson said. "It was tough on us, but more so on the kid. It's the thing he loves to do the most -- play baseball. I just hated it for him."

The NCAA not only ruled Oliver ineligible for last year's postseason, but it wouldn't reinstate him unless he sat out 70 percent of his team's 54 regular-season games this year.

OSU officials filed an appeal on Oliver's behalf. Oliver and his parents did something smarter: they sued the NCAA.

And, to the surprise of no one with any common sense, they won in court.

On Feb. 2, an Ohio judge (Oliver is a native of Vermilion, Ohio) delivered a landmark decision in his favor. Erie County judge Tygh M. Tone ruled that the NCAA can't restrict a student-athlete's right to have legal representation while negotiating a pro contract. The judge also ruled that the NCAA couldn't penalize OSU for playing Oliver this season -- even if a higher court later overturned his ruling.

In Tone's ruling, he lambasted the NCAA's decision to suspend Oliver in the first place.

Tone wrote: "For a student-athlete to be permitted to have an attorney and then to tell that student-athlete that his attorney cannot be present during the discussion of an offer from a professional organization, is akin to hiring a doctor but the doctor is told by the hospital board and the insurance company that he cannot be present when the patient meets with a surgeon because the conference may improve his patient's decision making power."

Even after the judge's ruling, OSU officials still weren't sure how to handle Oliver's case. They didn't reinstate him until the day before the Cowboys opened the season against BYU on Feb. 20. Oliver pitched the next day and looked like his old self, striking out 11 hitters in a 5-4 victory over the Cougars.

Anderson said at times this season, he worried about how Oliver would handle the distractions of his NCAA case. The NCAA still plans to appeal the judge's ruling.

"That's a tough deal," Anderson said. "Human nature says it weighs on you a little bit."

Watching Oliver pitch this season, it wasn't hard to tell it was weighing on his mind. During the regular season, he had a 5-6 record with a 5.58 ERA. He was bombed in his last regular-season start, giving up seven hits and eight earned runs in 2 1/3 innings in a 9-8 loss at Texas Tech on May 15.

Keith Law, a senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc., still ranks Oliver the No. 54 prospect available for the June 9 first-year player draft.

"Obviously, it hasn't been easy," Oliver said. "It's kind of been stressful. I've done the best I could do with it."

Against Clemson, Oliver finally seemed to be at his best again.

Oliver was dominant through the first seven innings, shutting out the Tigers and allowing only four hits. But after the Pokes took a 2-0 lead on back-to-back homers from shortstop Tom Belza and designated hitter Mark Ginther in the bottom of the seventh, Clemson's hitters finally got to Oliver in the eighth.

With one out, the Tigers hit four straight singles to chase Oliver from the game. Clemson tied the score at 2-2 in the eighth, but OSU went back ahead 3-2 on left fielder Neil Medchill's RBI single in the bottom of the eighth.

Pokes closer Randy McCurry retired the Tigers in order in the ninth to seal the victory.

This time, Oliver was there to celebrate with his teammates.

"I was just excited to play," Oliver said. "I was just excited to be out there."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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