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Big 12 Baseball Tournament Preview: The stakes are high in OKC

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TCU isn’t the only team with plenty to play for at Bricktown Ballpark, as several other conference programs are hoping to make their case for the field of 64.

It ought to be a wild one in OKC, as the Big 12 Baseball stars will be out in a big way throughout the conference tournament.
Melissa Triebwasser

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Big 12 ended a conference regular season with a tie atop the standings, despite one team owning the head to head via a series win over the other.

Yet, here we are, with the Texas Longhorns holding the #1 seed heading into this week’s conference tournament, via their two wins at TCU in April, while the Frogs own a share of the crown (and get one of those pretty bowls, too!) as both teams hold 17-7 records in Big 12 play.

The Red Raiders, another team to have taken two of three from TCU, are the third seed, followed by Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Baylor, and Kansas State. West Virginia and Kansas will open the tournament Tuesday night in a defacto play-in game to reach the official bracket.

Here is a broad brush look at the field, and how the week in OKC might play out.

#1 seed Texas Longhorns — 40-13 (17-7)

Regular Season MVP

You could go a lot of directions for this pick, but Ivan Melendez is the straw that stirs the drink for UT. He hits for power (11 home runs and 12 doubles), slugs .667 — fifth best mark in the conference — and has drawn 23 walks. He’s a feared hitter in a lineup that needs one, and can change the complex of a game with one swing.

Key Pitcher for a Tournament Run

Ty Madden is the name, but Pete Hansen has been the difference. The freshman leads the Big 12 with a 1.80 ERA, and the .195 BA against him is the lowest mark in the conference as well. Since taking over the third slot in the rotation, the kid has been nails — 4-1 in conference with just three earned runs allowed. Madden might be the guy asked two win two, but Hansen is the one that will give him the opportunity.

Player to Watch

Mitchell Daly. He does a little bit of everything and he does it all well, batting .354 on the season and driving opposing pitchers crazy.

Tournament Expectations/How Does Your Team Make the Field of 64

They’re in, they’re a national seed, and nothing they do this weekend will change that.

Critical Storyline for the Postseason

In 2019, Texas finished last in the conference and didn’t even make it to OKC. Now, they’re a first place team, a national seed, and all the pressure in the world is on them. Can Dave Pierce take his team to Omaha, or will the heat get to the Horns?

#2 seed TCU Horned Frogs — 37-16 (17-7)

Regular Season MVP

It’s hard to argue that the answer here is anyone but Haylen Green, Saturday meltdown in Manhattan notwithstanding. Green has been the emotional leader of TCU Baseball all season and its most reliable bullpen arm, leading the Big 12 with 11 saves. You could make a case for Phillip Sikes, who carried the offense when the Frogs’ were playing their best baseball, or Zach Humphreys, who has been reliable at the and behind the plate without missing a scheduled start.

Key Pitcher for a Tournament Run

Who is going to be TCU’s third starter? At this point, we pretty much know who we have in Russell Smith and Austin Krob — and Johnny Ray, but that’s not necessarily a good thing — but someone has to step up and be reliable after them. Candidates include Chuck King, who was masterful in the regular-season finale, and Luke Savage, who came into the year an afterthought but forced the burning of his redshirt with a couple of impressive Tuesday night starts.

Player to Watch

Porter Brown and Gray Rodgers. The Frogs’ offense has struggled for the better part of a month after leading the country in total runs for most of the season, but these two guys have been the best hitters of late. If Zach Humphreys, Phillip Sikes, or Brayden Taylor can return to midseason form, TCU can score enough runs to overcome what has been shaky pitching.

Tournament Expectations/How Does Your Team Make the Field of 64

The Frogs are firmly in the field and for all intents and purposes a lock to host the Regional round. But to get back into the National Seed conversation, they have to knock out Texas Tech and at least play for, if not win outright, the tournament championship.

Critical Storyline for the Postseason

It was just three years ago that Jim Schlossnagle got hot and heavy with Mississippi State before ultimately returning to Fort Worth. Now, there are rumors that A&M has him on their shortlist, alongside Tim Tadlock and a few other big names. Will Schloss leave TCU for the SEC? And will that be a distraction for a team that has Omaha in their sights? Has that been the issue for the last few weeks? We will find out.

#3 seed Texas Tech Red Raiders — 35-13 (14-10)

Regular Season MVP

Jace Jung. I hate him.

His 20 home runs lead the Big 12 and are the fifth best mark in the country, but the annoying part is that he’s only struck out 35 times. This is a complete hitter who can beat the best pitchers in a variety of ways.

And the Big 12 Player of the Year is technically just a freshman.

Key Pitcher for a Tournament Run

The Red Raiders have a solid compliment of capable starters, but Ryan Sublette is the guy that is going to carry the burden out of the pen if Tech wants to make it to Sunday. The junior out of Illinois leads the team in appearances (16) and has a sterling strikeout to walk ration (50-13). He has a 2.60 ERA and two saves across nearly 35 innings, and it’s likely we will hear his name a lot at Bricktown.

Player to Watch

Jung. Because you know he’s going to put on a show.

Tournament Expectations/How Does Your Team Make the Field of 64

The Red Raiders are a lock for the field and to host a Regional round, and if they can knock the Horned Frogs out of their side of the bracket, could well earn a national nod. They need to be playing on Sunday to secure that, and they have a great chance to do so.

Critical Storyline for the Postseason

Tim Tadlock just signed a big, fat lifetime extension. That takes a big distraction off the table.

#4 seed Oklahoma State Cowboys — 32-16-1 (12-12)

Regular Season MVP

I am terrified of Christian Encarnacion-Strand and you should be too. He’s batting .360 on the season with 15 home runs and he is one of the most imposing looking figures in the sport.

Key Pitcher for a Tournament Run

Justin Campbell has been the Cowboys best pitcher in 2021 and could well be tasked with winning twice if OSU is going to try and win a title. A 6’7” freshman, Campbell also plays first base when he’s not on the mound and has a .254 average to go with his 2.25 ERA. His 93 strikeouts are a top five mark in the conference — this kid is filthy.

Player to Watch

Jake Thompson gets on base A LOT — more than anyone else in the conference. He could wreak havoc on in the early rounds and certainly spark and Oklahoma State offense that’s deadly when locked in.

Tournament Expectations/How Does Your Team Make the Field of 64

The Pokes are in but their beautiful new ballpark will need to wait at least a year to see postseason action. They’re playing for seeding and to avoid having to go somewhere like Fayetteville in the Regional round.

Critical Storyline for the Postseason

Can CES smash his way team deep into the tournament? Or at least launch one into the parking garage?

The Cowboys recovered well from a slow start but have been inconsistent all season. This is a talented team that is dangerous if they can put it all together. The question is, can they?

#5 seed Oklahoma Sooners — 27-26 (11-13)

Regular Season MVP

Tyler Hardman just got a hit.

Hardman’s .403 batting average is the second best amongst Power Five players. He’s slugging .676, has an OBP of .488, and has scored 49 runs. Oklahoma is as good as he takes them.

Key Pitcher for a Tournament Run

Jason Ruffcorn is the most reliable reliever on the team and a guy the Sooners turn to in a variety of situations. They’ll need him if they want to play into June.

Player to Watch

Hardman for sure. The race to .400 will end on OKC, and it would be awesome to see Tyler hit that mark.

Tournament Expectations/How Does Your Team Make the Field of 64

The last Big 12 seed in the field will likely be either the Sooners or the Bears, with whatever team performs better at Bricktown getting to live another day. The two teams are on opposite sides of the bracket, so they will be competing with each other from afar.

Critical Storyline for the Postseason

How many games can OU win in the tournament and make a case for the postseason?

#6 seed Baylor Bears — 31-18 (11-13)

Regular Season MVP

Jared McKenzie has been one of the elite hitters in the conference this season, and is as dangerous an offensive player as you will find in the Big 12 this season. His .380 mark is the second highest in conference and he’s near the top in hits, doubles, and home runs.

Key Pitcher for a Tournament Run

Tyler Thomas has been exceptional for the Bears, sporting a 5-2 record with a 2.49 ERA and 66 strikeouts. He can win two in OKC if he gets the shot.

Player to Watch

Andy Thomas has a lot of pop and is a guy teams might be careful around in a win or go home situation.

Tournament Expectations/How Does Your Team Make the Field of 64

The Bears were on the right side of the bubble before a disastrous weekend in their final series against Oklahoma. They have to be better than the Sooners in OKC if they want to secure a spot in the field of 64.

Critical Storyline for the Postseason

How far can the Bears go? They beat Tech twice in Lubbock but dropped two to OU with a ton on the line. The pressure is certainly on.

#7 seed Kansas State Wildcats — 31-22 (10-14)

Regular Season MVP

Dylan Phillips is the straw that stirs the drink for the Cats, the heart of an offense that is more than capable of putting up crooked numbers in an inning at any given time.

Key Pitcher for a Tournament Run

We are on Jordan Wicks watch at Bricktown, and it will be interesting to see whether the Cats ace starts again against TCU Wednesday. He’s really, really good, and has the bonafides to prove it, leading the conference with 109 strikeouts against just 26 walks.

Player to Watch

Tyler Eckberg is one of the Big 12’s elite arms out of the bullpen and a guy that can have a huge impact in relief. If the Cats advance, he will have played a big role.

Tournament Expectations/How Does Your Team Make the Field of 64

Win the whole thing.

Critical Storyline for the Postseason

Can Jordan Wicks go out a winner?

#8 seed West Virginia Mountaineers — 23-25 (8-16)

Regular Season MVP

Jackson Wolfe is probably the Eers best player.

Key Pitcher for a Tournament Run

Jackson Wolfe... again.

Player to Watch

Can Paul McIntosh get things going? He has been WVU’s best offensive player, but the offense as a whole has been disappointing at best.

Tournament Expectations/How Does Your Team Make the Field of 64

Win the whole thing.

Critical Storyline for the Postseason

Randy Mazey’s son, affectionately known as Wammer, suffered a traumatic brain injury during a baseball game himself earlier this season, and his health has weighed on the coach and his team all season long. With Wammer’s health improving, can he inspire the Mountaineers to make a run?

#9 seed Kansas Jayhawks — 30-26 (8-16)

Regular Season MVP

Skyler Messinger is, I guess?

Key Pitcher for a Tournament Run

Cole Larsen has been great for Kansas, and could absolutely beat WVU Tuesday night to get his team in the field.

Player to Watch

If anyone is going to provide a spark, it will be Messinger, who leads the Jayhawks in batting average, hits, doubles, and RBI.

Tournament Expectations/How Does Your Team Make the Field of 64

It will be a LONG road for Kansas, who has to win it all.

Critical Storyline for the Postseason

Does anyone care about Kansas Baseball? I guess we will find out!