STILLWATER, Okla. – Oklahoma State baseball concluded its fall schedule last weekend, and Cowboys’ first-year head coach Josh Holliday had plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
The Cowboys held 35 fall practice sessions, culminating in an intra-squad world series, and the new coaching staff was able to implement its philosophies and expectations seamlessly.
“To get to see the kids perform and get to know them as a group and what their talents are and for them to get to know us was probably the biggest adjustment for everyone,” said Holliday, who was hired as OSU’s head coach on June 8. “How are we going to operate, how are we going to train, what is going to be the adjustment for the players to the coaches and vice versa?
“We successfully cleared that hurdle early on. The kids bought in to everything the coaches asked them to do, and that was never really much of an issue for us whatsoever. Everybody embraced the idea that we are essentially a new team and a new group, and this is a good thing. We’re gonna have fun with each other and lean on each other to learn different angles towards the game.
“I appreciate the kids a lot for being open minded. They were receptive, they gave us very good effort and we got better as we went along. We’re not anywhere close to being the team we need to be at the start of the season, but we did accomplish a great deal. November, December, January and early February will be critical to take care of business in the classroom, get stronger and really make some skill adjustments, just take what they’ve learned and try and make it a repeatable skill.”
One of the biggest keys for Holliday was getting a number of members of the pitching staff healthy, and the Cowboys were able to take a big step in the right direction in that regard as hurlers such Jason Hursh, Mark Robinette, Tyler Nurdin and Phillip Wilson were all able to return to the mound after missing last season.
Holliday highlighted several pitchers as having strong falls, among them Nurdin and newcomers Nick Dolsky and Alex Hackerott, but Hursh stood tall above the others.
A right-hander, Hursh missed the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. As a freshman in 2011, the former sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates appeared in 10 games and was 1-1 with a 2.73 ERA.
During fall scrimmages, Hursh worked 20 innings and racked up 22 strikeouts while allowing just four earned runs.
“Jason Hursh has a great arm, a very, very live fastball,” Holliday said. “At times, he was very overpowering. The good thing about Jason is he’s healthy. You always want to see someone coming off a surgery be able to take the ball every day healthy and ready to throw. He got a lot better as the fall went on. His mound presence, his control, just his overall vision of pitching and knowledge of himself improved dramatically.”
Among the Cowboys’ returning position players, Holliday was encouraged by a trio of seniors — Robbie Rea, Trey Whaley and Jarrett Higgins — that he expects to make significant contributions in 2013.
Rea, an All-Big 12 Second Team selection as a junior, has moved from second to third base, while Whaley will look to build on his All-Big 12 Honorable Mention performance of a year ago. That duo ranked as OSU’s top two hitters last season, with Rea’s .324 batting average, five home runs and 38 RBIs leading the way. Higgins missed the last part of his junior season with injury but still led the Cowboys with 17 stolen bases.
“I like what those older returning players brought to the table,” Holliday said. “All three of those being seniors, I trust those kids. They’re gonna give us a good year, and I appreciate the leadership potential that they all have. We’ll all grow as a team as we go, but there’s definitely a chance for those guys to be the type of leaders we need.”
Holliday also noted the improvements of returning outfielders Zach Fish, Saulyer Saxon (team-high 12 RBIs in fall) and Aaron Cornell (team-high .391 batting average in fall) and praised sophomore Gage Green, who showcased his versatility by going behind the plate to help at the catching position after playing outfield last season.
“Gage is a guy we’re gonna want to see in the lineup,” Holliday said. “He’s a kid that plays to win, and his ability to catch gives us another dynamic there that makes us a better team.”
A pair of newcomers also made big impressions during the fall.
Junior Tanner Krietemeier, who began his career at Nebraska before earning All-America honors at Iowa Western Community College last season, proved to be a tough out at the plate.
“Tanner had a good, successful fall and proved that he could swing the bat from both sides,” Holliday said. “He’s a good athlete, he runs well and he comes to play everyday, and I think he can really help us.”
Another newcomer, freshman Donnie Walton, made a strong case to be OSU’s starting shortstop in the spring. The son of Cowboy pitching coach Rob Walton, Donnie hit .333 with eight RBIs and five stolen bases during fall scrimmages, and his 17 hits were the second most on the club.
“Donnie did something good every day, whether it was a great play or a good at-bat – he showed an ability to play baseball at a pretty high level for a young player,” Holliday said. “He definitely made you know he was on the field, and he let you know he can handle that (shortstop) position and also swing the bat.”
Along with the play of his ballclub, Holliday was encouraged by the Cowboys’ fan support during the fall, especially during the team’s final scrimmage last Sunday.
“To play an intra-squad game on the final day of the fall in front of a couple hundred people, if not more, really made the kids feel good,” Holliday said. “We probably saw the best energy and concentration we saw out of them all fall, and there’s no coincidence that the fans brought that out of them.
“We had great support and cooperation from the marketing and ticket offices, hustling to get involved and creating a nice atmosphere for the fans – drinks, peanuts, music, just all the things that make baseball the experience that it is. Helping create that excitement is a huge positive. A big part of shooting life into a team and a program is seeing people in those seats. That will be a huge part of our success.”