Oklahoma baseball: It’s ‘Play Ball’ time again for the Sooners

With the college basketball season rounding the final turn and heading for home, college baseball is set to get started, and for Oklahoma baseball the season opens next weekend.

For the Sooners, who finished third in the Big 12 last season with a 12-11 record and 35-24 overall record, the 2018 season will begin in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Oklahoma will play four games in three days in the Baseball at the Beach tournament. The four other participating teams are Indiana; South Alabama; Coastal Carolina, the 2016 national champions, and Virginia Tech.

Oklahoma made a return to postseason play last year, as the two seed in the Louisville Regional, after a three-year absence from the NCAA Baseball Championship.

The Sooners begin the 2018 campaign picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 Preseason Baseball Poll conducted by the league coaches. OU trails preseason favorite Texas Tech, TCU and Texas, all ranked in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll, in the Big 12 coaches poll.

This is the second season for Oklahoma under head coach Skip Johnson. Johnson was the Sooner pitching coach in 2017. That was preceded by a 25-year coaching career in the state of Texas, including 10 seasons at the University of Texas.

Junior Steele Walker leads the returning Sooners at the plate. The OU outfielder earned preseason All-America honors from all of the major media outlets. He batted .333 last season along with a slugging average of .541, including 16 doubles, three triples and eight home runs. He scored 49 runs and drove in 51.

Walker is one of 55 candidates and six players from the Big 12 on the preseason watch list  for the Golden Spikes Award, which honors the top amateur baseball player in the country. The award is sponsored by Major League Baseball.

Brylie Ware, the top junior college player in the country two seasons ago, is also back for another season with the Sooners. Ware was mostly a designated hitter for OU last season. He batted .298 and hit all five of his home runs in the final 14 games of the season.

The Sooners also return their Nos. 1 and 2 starters from last season in junior right-hander Jake Irvin and senior right-hander Devon Perez.

Earlier this week, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione announced that the Sooner baseball program had become the beneficiary of a generous gift from alum and former player Bob Stephenson. The amount of Stephenson’s donation was not disclosed, but Castiglione said it will go toward a $10 million renovation of L. Dale Mitchell Park.

Stephenson and his wife, Norma, live in Norman. He played shortstop at OU under head coach Jack Baer in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He spent time in the St. Louis Cardinal farm system before serving in the Korean War in 1952-53 with the U.S. Army. He played in 67 games with the Cardinals in 1955 in his only major league system.

Oklahoma opens the season next Friday with a game against Indiana. The Sooners home season opener is Feb. 21 against Abilene Christian. Big 12 play begins on March 23 with a home series against West Virginia.