Commentary

Inside The Program: OU baseball

Originally Published: June 2, 2011
By David Ubben | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The players rolled downstairs in groups for breakfast. College baseball's postseason is not complex from one perspective: Win and the road remains simple.

But lose? That same road quickly lengthens from underneath any team that wakes up in the loser's bracket needing to win as many as three additional games to win a regional, or the Big 12 tournament, in Oklahoma's case.

A loss to Kansas State the day before means an early morning for the Sooners. First pitch is 12:30 p.m. in a loser-goes-home matchup with Texas Tech.

But between the time the breakfast plates are clean and the bus is loaded up? A little downtime.

[+] EnlargeTyler Ogle
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesCatcher Tyler Ogle kept the mood light in the dugout.

10:15 a.m.: If Oklahoma had won the night before, the pregame ritual might have been some Big 12 baseball or a movie in Bricktown down the street from the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City, where the team was staying.

Junior catcher Tyler Ogle, a Texas native, has friends on every Big 12 team but Missouri, and the Big 12 tournament can be a rare opportunity to see them play without trying to beat them.

But the gap between a wake-up call and game time is narrow in the loser's bracket. So third baseman Garrett Buechele and a handful of teammates turn to an alternative to fill the time: "Swamp People" on the History Channel.

"It's about as entertaining as any TV show could ever be," he said. "It's people in the swamp catching alligators. You can't put it down. Once it's on, you're hooked."

10:55 a.m.: The bus leaves at 11, but the team makes it on early without a straggler. Coach Sunny Golloway is concerned about his team and has already made up his mind: He is starting three seniors in the outfield, one of whom had just one start on the season. The MLB draft is in about two weeks, and Golloway knows it can be a distraction for the juniors on his team.

"For the seniors, though? This is it," he says.

It's been a long season for the Sooners that began with a 16-game winning streak and an ascent to No. 2 in the polls. Oklahoma entered the Big 12 tournament with a shot at hosting a regional in the NCAA tournament, but an earlier-than-expected exit will send the Sooners packing for the Ft. Worth Regional as a No. 2 seed.

Golloway doubts that his Sooners, an experienced team that made it to the College World Series a year ago, have a player who has played better this year than last year.

10:58 a.m.: Golloway steps on the bus and addresses the team. After finishing the short speech, the shorter ride to the park takes place in relative silence once a switch is made from local sports talk radio to some quiet country music.

11:10 a.m.: Golloway assembles his team in the batting cages above right field in Bricktown Ballpark, lecturing on team roles before giving way to batting practice. Only teams playing the first game of the day take batting practice on the field. Everyone else is relegated to the cages while the earlier games are played out on the field below them, one of the unavoidable kinks of postseason play in college baseball.

11:50 a.m.: A brief batting practice session is over, and the team makes its way to the dugout after rival Texas sent Baylor home in the day's first game, which began at 9 a.m. Once the dugout is clear, the Sooners slip on their jerseys and button them up, bracing themselves against the dugout bench to get their cleats on. The team won't take the field or have time for a leisurely pregame ritual in the clubhouse before the first pitch, but there's still time to crack a joke.

Golloway notes that Ogle, his catcher, is dating OU women's basketball player Carlee Roethlisberger.

"Be honest here. Can you beat her at basketball? Can you beat her at anything?" Golloway says, drawing a few laughs.

Did Ogle at least snag some tickets from his girlfriend's famous big brother to the recent Super Bowl in Dallas?

"Nope, that would be [an NCAA] violation," Ogle says with a shake of the head.

11:54 a.m.: Golloway buries his head in the lineup card, trying to make last-minute adjustments that address the issues in Wednesday's loss. He works up until the top of the hour, when a Texas Tech coach comes calling.

12:35 p.m.: While his team bats in the first inning, Golloway takes a perch at the entrance to the Sooners' dugout, relaying signs. The only prerequisite for his players to understand the signs is the ability to count. But for those unfamiliar?

"I think the Da Vinci code might be easier to crack," says a team official.

1:05 p.m.: A gem already in progress, pitcher Burch Smith sits in a folding chair by himself in the entrance to a tunnel that leads underneath the ballpark. His right (throwing) arm is wrapped in a heating pad and covered with a jacket. His intentions? A long day. The longest of his career, ideally. The Sooners burned a pair of pitchers in the loss to Kansas State the night before, and if Oklahoma is going to make a deep run in the tournament, Smith will have to make a deep run in his first start of the postseason.

1:16 p.m.: In the third inning, Buechele gives the Sooners the game's first run with a sacrifice fly. "Atta boy, Boosh," says a teammate, offering up a high-five as Buechele and the runner he scored, Cale Ellis, both arrive back in the dugout.

1:23 p.m.: Pitcher Tyson Seng sits silently in the dugout. Tomorrow, he will help bury his former roommate and friend since junior high. He is a pallbearer for Austin Box, a middle linebacker on Oklahoma's football team who died a week earlier. Seng found out via text message while the team was in Waco, Texas. The team honors Box with a white box on the left side of their baseball hats. A black No. 12, Box's number, sits in the white space, with OU's logo beside it and "Austin Box" written in red underneath it.

[+] EnlargeSunny Golloway
Patrick Green/Icon SMICoach Sunny Golloway relied on his seniors to right the ship on Day 2 of the Big 12 tournament.

After burying his friend, Seng will return to Oklahoma City just before Friday's game and pitch 3 2/3 innings of scoreless baseball later that night.

1:30 p.m.: Cameron Seitzer adds another run with a solo home run to right field. "Aw yeah, that's real nice, Cam!" shouts a teammate as the ball leaves the bat, clearly headed for a new home outside the playing field at Bricktown Ballpark.

1:39 p.m.: Baseball's unique traditions are numerous and Oklahoma is no different. Anytime the Sooners are batting with two strikes, two balls and two outs, a tribute to America's most suggestive piece of exercise equipment, the Shake Weight, begins.

"Deuces!" yells a player.

Each player slides a finger or two up and down the right side of the bill of his ball cap while mimicking the signature "shicka-shicka-shicka" sound, led by an actual Shake Weight, which one player quickly grabs from the bench in the dugout and activates while the count is still active.

1:58 p.m.: With Oklahoma up 3-0, OU infielder Evan Mistich grounds into an inning-ending double play, ending a chance to stretch the lead. "We gotta have a plan when we're at the plate, fellas," Golloway says, peering down the dugout at his team. "That was a momentum swing. We gotta get it back. We gotta put up a donut here."

2:03 p.m.: Golloway gets his donut, courtesy of a lineout to cap a 1-2-3 inning for Smith, who gives up just two hits through seven innings and strikes out the side in the seventh inning.

2:55 p.m.: With Smith slowing in the eighth inning of his longest career start, Golloway sends a group to the bullpen. Smith has given up three hits in the inning after just two the entire game before it.

"Try to have a little sense of urgency to what you're doing," Golloway yells as his players jog out of the dugout.

Smith escapes the eighth inning, giving up just a run. Golloway wants to bring in closer Ryan Duke for the ninth, but Smith successfully politicks his way back to the mound for the ninth inning.

"I worked all year for that and I hadn't been in the ninth inning yet," he later tells a group of reporters. "I think I might have been in the eighth one time, but it feels good to be able to go out and save the bullpen."

In fast-paced tournament play, that's a big deal, and after Oklahoma's struggles on Day 1, it is much-needed.

"I thought it was as gutty of a performance, honestly, that I've seen in a Sooner uniform," Golloway says after the game. "We really needed that."

3:15 p.m.: With a runner on base and two outs, a spent Smith is pulled with one out to play, in favor of Duke. Duke retires the final batter on a lineout to save Oklahoma's 3-1 win.

3:20 p.m.: Golloway gathers his team for a few encouraging words on the field before he sends them back on the bus. "Go out, eat dinner, relax. We need the break," he says, asking a nearby coach if tomorrow's game was indeed the late game. It is.

"Don't stay out too late, we need our rest."

3:36 p.m.: Texas Tech's tournament is over, and Golloway grabs a seat on a couch outside the interview room next to his son, Callen, who watched the game from the dugout. Smith and Seitzer chat quietly as Golloway silently studies the box score and waits his turn at the microphone in front of a room full of reporters.

3:50 p.m.: His bullpen is fresh. The media's questions are answered. Another notch is added to the win column, Oklahoma's 41st of the year. Golloway is making his way out to the team bus through the bowels of Bricktown Ballpark. A few team officials update him on the action around the country from other conference tournaments.

"Dad, who's the best team?" Callen asks, looking up at his quick-walking dad.

"Uh … I'd say South Carolina," he answers.

3:52 p.m.: After giving a hug and a kiss to his wife and one of his daughters, who are waiting outside the bus, Golloway steps inside to join his team and takes a seat. The driver fires up the engine and sets the course.

Today's destination isn't Norman. It's the team hotel, thanks to a day spent staving off elimination.

David Ubben covers college football for ESPN.com.

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