OKLAHOMA CITY — When the Oklahoma State-hosted Oklahoma City bracket was unveiled, the first reaction was that the Cowboys got a nice draw.
Nebraska would be an interesting presence in this NCAA baseball regional. So would Harvard from the Ivy League.
UConn commanded respect because it has Jacob Wallace, a flame-thrower regarded by some as the best closer in college baseball.
You had to pick OSU, though. In May, there were for the Cowboys a 12-2 record and a Big 12 title.
The Cowboy program’s credentials are far beyond those of Nebraska, Harvard and UConn combined, so, on paper, OSU seemed destined to win here and advance to a super regional.
There were no indications that UConn would steal the show, but for a while the Huskies did exactly that. Through the Saturday and Sunday games at the Bricktown Ballpark, UConn was the most potent team.
Through their first three games here, the Huskies had a stunning total of 58 base hits.
On Sunday night, there was a 5-2 OSU setback against UConn. On Monday night, there was an all-or-nothing rematch.
Among the OSU people in the stadium, you could sense tension when Cowboy bats were dysfunctional through four innings. OSU batters struck out 17 times on Sunday. If there were a comparable total on Monday, there would have been trouble.
Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday needed a winning response from someone — anyone — in the batting order, and certainly from his pitching staff.
During a 3-1 Cowboy victory that sends OSU to a super regional at Texas Tech, the pitching was brilliant all night.
Against UConn, OSU’s Joe Lienhard provided a high-quality start and former Claremore star Peyton Battenfield followed with three innings of scoreless relief.
“I knew I had to be nails,” said Lienhard, a senior from Wichita, Kansas, who allowed only the one run in six innings. “I knew I had to be locked in.”
From the bottom third of the Cowboy order emerged two heroes: Alix Garcia (who belted a solo home run in the fifth) and Carson McCusker (who bashed a two-run double in the sixth).
OSU also got tremendous defensive plays from McCusker in left field and from the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Lienhard, who bounced off of the mound to dive and catch a bunted pop-up near the third-base line.
It was smart to get those three runs before Wallace entered the game in the sixth inning. Combining his Sunday and Monday appearances, the 6-foot, 195-pound UConn junior struck out 12 of the 15 Cowboys he faced. Any minute now, his name will be called in the Major League Baseball Draft.
“You saw why (Wallace) is the most highly celebrated closer on the books this year,” Holliday said. “You damn sure don’t want to be behind late in the game with that closer. That kid’s fastball has a gear in it that you don’t see very many times.”
This might say something about the UConn threat to end Oklahoma State’s season. On the all-tournament team were seven Huskies and three Cowboys. UConn was legit.
All-tournament Cowboys were Trevor Boone, the Saturday night home run hero who was voted the weekend’s Most Outstanding Player, along with second baseman Hueston Morrill and right-hander Jensen Elliott.
On March 10 in Los Angeles, in a 3-2 victory over Michigan at Dodger Stadium, Lienhard was the Oklahoma State starter.
For a college pitcher, there aren’t many assignments on that level of significance. Monday’s start was beyond that level.
In that most athletes savor a high-stakes challenge, Lienhard probably loved the mission he was given on Monday: To execute great pitches against what had been a red-hot UConn offense. To be a prominent reason for an OSU win, a regional championship and an extension of the Cowboy season.
Lienhard thrived in the heat of pressure and against a really good opponent.
“Joe left it all on the field, man,” Holliday said. “That’s a great place to come from — to pitch in a big situation, on behalf of your ballclub and school.”
The grand prize for Lienhard and his teammates is a trip to Lubbock, where in late April OSU was swept by Texas Tech in three games. Holliday says he has a much different and much better team now.
On the NCAA bracket overall, Texas Tech is the No. 8 seed. The Cowboys are seeded ninth.
If Holliday gets pitching as he did on Monday, and as he did from Jensen Elliott against Harvard on Friday, the outcome of a return Lubbock trip might be far more positive.
OSU 3, UConn 1
UConn 000 010 000 – 1 5 1
OSU 000 012 00x – 3 7 0
Haus, Wurster (3), Dandeneau (5), Wallace (6) and P. Winkel; Lienhard, Battenfield (7) and Simpson. W: Lienhard (4-1). L: Dandeneau (4-2). HR: OSU, Garcia (7).