STILLWATER — Josh Holliday never heard any strange voices offering cryptic messages upon taking over the Oklahoma State baseball rebuild.
Instead, the message was clear and agreed upon when Holliday and assistants Rob Walton and Marty Lees plotted the program’s future.
Build it and they will…
The coaches inherited some good players, yet also needed to supplement the roster. They could have gone for a quick fix and chased junior college talent ready to make an immediate impact. Or they could focus instead on high school players with more long-term appeal.
Build it and they will….
The choice was unanimous, with all three proven program builders agreeing that prep talent was the way, growing pains and all.
Build it and they will come on — that was the hope. And come on they have, with freshmen now filling vital roles for the Cowboys, complementing a strong veteran presence to fuel OSU’s run to a Super Regional, putting it on the doorstep of the school’s first College World Series berth in 15 years.
“We made the decision when we were hired to build this team through youth, and to do it the right way, so that we could hopefully establish long-term sustainability within the program,” Holliday said. “Kids playing here for three and four years and graduating and falling in love with Oklahoma State. And they wear this uniform with a lot of pride.
“That’s how we decided we were going to do this. And part of that was running a bunch of freshmen out there this year, knowing we were going to take some lumps. There were going to be some days where you scratch your head.
“Those kids have grown up.”
And they’ve grown into major roles.
Freshman Tyler Buffett, a right-handed pitcher from Albuquerque, now fills the No. 2 slot in the weekend rotation. He owns a 2-1 record with a 2.95 earned run average in 55 innings, including 10 starts.
Freshman Blake Battenfield, a right-hander from Claremore, is a key cog in the bullpen. His 26 appearances rank third on the staff. And he’s compiled a 4-0 record with a 1.70 ERA.
Freshman Trey Cobb, a Broken Arrow product, is another valuable bullpen piece, with a 2.62 ERA.
The Cowboys have also gotten contributions from Jenks’ Thomas Hatch and Amarillo’s Garrett Williams, who have been up and down, yet combined for 6 wins and two saves. Yep, they’re freshmen.
“Every time they stepped on the mound, they got better and better,” OSU catcher Bryan Case said of the freshman pitchers. “Being a catcher, you catch their bullpens all through the fall, you see where they start up to now. It’s just night and day.
“All the hard work they’re putting in is paying off and it’s rewarding for everyone involved.”
Veterans are the headliners on this Cowboys team. Zach Fish, Big 12 Player of the Year. First baseman Tanner Krietemeier. Outfielder and catcher Gage Green. Outfielder Saulyer Saxon. Ace Jon Perrin. Versatile reliever Vince Wheeland. Closer and all-time OSU saves leader Brendan McCurry. All were Frank Anderson recruits.
Holliday’s first wave includes shortstop Donnie Walton and right fielder Conor Costello, sophomores who have starred in this postseason. Tim Arakawa, a junior college transfer and another Holliday find, has been a clutch hitter as the everyday second baseman. Pitcher Alex Hackerott and outfielder Corey Hassell have also helped as sophomores.
Yet it’s difficult to project the Cowboys coming so far without the influence of this freshman class.
In last weekend’s regional tournament, freshman arms combined for 13 innings, allowing no earned runs and striking out 12. Buffett started Game 1, going 4 2/3 to send OSU on its way against Binghamton. Battenfield appeared in two games, giving a scoreless inning in each and striking out three. Cobb rescued the Cowboys in the regional championship game against Cal State Fullerton, coming on in the first inning for a scuffling Tyler Nurdin and stabilizing the game with 5 1/3 strong innings until the bats could get going.
“I think we’ve definitely grown as baseball players,” Buffett said, “and that’s a testament to our coaches and what they’ve done for us and helped us get better. We’ve all adopted that mentality of taking it one pitch at a time.”
Holliday and Walton, the pitching coach, had to adopt a mentality of patience.
As Holliday so often reminds, baseball is a game of failure. And freshmen are going to fail. And OSU’s did early on.
Still, it was expected.
So was improvement.
“They all need time to grow,” Walton said. “Hopefully understanding those failures they can start making adjustments to this level and move in a positive direction. Sometimes, failing for the first time or getting hit a lot harder than you’ve ever been hit before can do damage psychologically.
“Those guys have done a nice job recovering and understanding it is a new level. And each level starts to get tougher and tougher.”
But as the season goes on, it’s beginning to look easier and easier for some.
And it’s not just the pitchers, position players Dustin Williams, Ryan Sluder and Robie Rojas have enjoyed moments as well.
The pitchers, however, have found themselves in high-leverage moments. And as important as they’ve been down the stretch, they figure to fill even more prominent roles in the years ahead.
“They’re going to be good,” Walton said. “It’s not the norm for freshmen to come in and just be absolutely dominant, because those guys are gone in the first round of the draft. They already have great breaking balls, great command, great fastballs
“Most of the guys we have are guys with good arms who don’t have the breaking ball or don’t have a changeup or they need better command. They have unlimited potential, but they need that arsenal of pitches to be good at this level. And then when they leave, they should be good professionals.”
For now, the Cowboys will settle for them being good college pitchers.
Holliday and his staff are building something at OSU; building upon youth.
And the youngsters have come on.
The plan is for them to keep coming. And coming on.
“So they have a chance to play in their second and third and potentially fourth year and bring tremendous experience to the team,” Holliday said. “Understand the system. And really be a walking example of what it means to play here.
“Not that an older player couldn’t do that. But you’re asking an older player to do that in a shorter window of time. All the great programs I’ve been in, we had players who were deeply, deeply invested in those programs. Playing there was something they took incredibly personal. That’s what you want to see. You want to see guys who come back here. This is where they come back to train. This is where they come back to see their best friends. This is where they come to share those moments.
“And you can only do that if you can attach yourself to these kids for that amount of time.”