NORMAN — During Oklahoma’s suspense-filled NCAA tournament run, Bobby Shore looks for distractions to take his mind off the close games when he is not on the mound. Often a little bubble gum is enough to do the trick.
Lately, the pitcher has had plenty of reasons to look for distractions.
His Sooners (47-15) have won five of their last seven games by scoring in their final at-bat and won notched three straight by one run to squeak through the Norman Regional this past weekend.
Twice, Oklahoma needed extra innings to come out ahead.
“When I’m in the dugout doing the chart, I can’t stand it. I’m going to have a heart attack in there,” said Shore, who’s left to take notes when it’s not his turn in the starting rotation.
“I’d like to have some boat races in there. But they’re fun games when you come out on top.”
The Sooners have been able to find late-inning magic again and again in earning a trip to Charlottesville, Va., this weekend for a super regional against No. 5 national seed Virginia (50-12). Game 1 of the best-of-three series is Saturday.
It all started with three straight dramatic wins against Kansas last month. Tyler Ogle delivered a three-run double with two outs in the ninth to cap the Sooners’ four-run rally for an 8-7 win on May 22. The next night, he hit a tiebreaking three-run homer in the ninth for another
Then, in the opening game of the Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks fell victim to another Oklahoma comeback as Cody Reine hit a game-ending two-run double in a 3-2 Sooners win.
Those heroics carried over into the postseason, with Chris Ellison and Erik Ross providing the decisive hits in the 10th inning for wins against Oral Roberts and North Carolina last weekend.
“The thing with our team is there’s not that much pressure because we know that until the last out’s been made, the game’s not over,” said third baseman Garrett Buechele, the son of former big leaguer Steve Buechele.
“That’s something that we’ve established throughout the year for our team, the fact that until the game’s over we still have a chance to win the game.”
It’s hardly how sixth-year coach Sunny Golloway would draw up the victories for his team.
“I think the players like the late-inning drama. I don’t think the coaching staff likes it at all. But I do like the toughness,” Golloway said. “Our program is built on mental toughness. We talk about it. We have a definition: Learning to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. … There was nothing comfortable about this weekend.”
The Sooners have arrived in the super regionals for just the second time since the NCAA tournament format was changed in 1999 in a season that started with some uncertainty.
Golloway lost six players to the first nine rounds of last year’s Major League Baseball draft, and three others who were picked later on. Among those who moved on were the club’s two top starting pitchers and five everyday starters.
For many of Oklahoma’s current regulars, the late-inning dramatics are the only way they’ve experienced postseason success.
“It’s a great feeling to know that you can come from behind, being down in the ninth inning or the eighth inning or whenever,” Reine said. “It’s good to know that you can count on the guy behind you to come through.”
After winning 20 of their past 24 games, Golloway said the Sooners are brimming with confidence and the “expectations are to get to Omaha, and to not just get to Omaha but to win in Omaha” at the College World Series.
“We don’t quit whether we’re down or it’s a one-run game. We just keep playing until the end,” said Zach Neal, who is expected to start Game 2 on Sunday at Virginia. “That shows a lot about our team and our players and the group of guys that we are. We feel good about the wins this weekend. They were all good games. We’re just going to keep pushing.
“Our goal is Omaha, so we’ve got one more weekend.”