OKLAHOMA CITY -- They held a shiny trophy, wore bright orange championship shirts and grinned in front of a cluster of photographers, but the glue of their team was missing.
The Oklahoma State baseball players recognized their close-knit group wasn’t complete, so they quickly called for the newly crowned Most Outstanding Player while reporters began to snap pictures.
“Tank, Tank!” some of the guys yelled, indicating they had a spot for him in the middle.
After an interview, Colin Simpson, a senior, casually strolled toward his teammates and joined them, putting his left hand on Carson McCusker’s shoulder and his right arm around Noah Sifrit. Simpson, aka Tank, had finished an exhausting day of playing catcher for 19 innings. He had been awake since about 5:30 a.m., and dirt smudged his once pristinely white pants. On such a celebratory day, Simpson showed no sign of feeling drained of energy.
The Cowboys defeated West Virginia 5-2 to win the Big 12 Championship on Sunday in Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark. Earlier that day, third-seeded OSU won an elimination game against Texas Christian University to face the fourth-seeded Mountaineers.
“I don’t think I should be the only one to win (Most Outstanding Player),” Simpson said. “…It feels great to receive that award, but there were more kids on our team that were definitely capable of receiving that award.”
A plethora of difference-makers led the Cowboys (36-18) to their conference title.
Brett Standlee, a redshirt freshman, pitched through seven innings in the championship game and gave up only one run. Cade Cabbiness, a junior right fielder, sprinted toward Marques Inman’s fly ball and secured it in his glove to end the top of the eighth inning against WVU, stranding Tyler Doanes on third base and preventing a momentum shift. Alix Garcia, a junior first baseman, hit the walk-off single that allowed OSU to squeak past TCU and advance to the championship.
Josh Holliday, OSU’s coach, complimented the team, but to him, one Cowboy constantly inspires others to reach their potential.
“Colin’s the heart and soul of this team,” Holliday said. “He’s the heartbeat.”
Simpson ended the tournament with three home runs and six RBIs, but his pivotal play in the championship game was uncharacteristic of a swing-for-the-fences hitter. In the fifth inning, instead of attempting to take a hack at every pitch he saw, he went for a walk.
“The (pitcher Zach Reid) couldn’t really find the strike zone, so I just stood there and watched the ball go by four times and just, that was it,” Simpson said.
The bases-loaded walk pushed Jake Taylor to home plate, tying WVU (37-20) at 1.
Andrew Navigato, a junior shortstop, followed with a double to left field. Although Simpson was thrown out at home, Hueston Morrill and Christian Funk scored to give the Cowboys a 3-1 lead. Navigato had five RBIs in the tournament.
The Cowboys added security runs in the eighth with RBIs from McCusker and Garcia. Rob Walton, OSU’s pitching coach, carefully managed his staff. He brought in Brady Basso to relieve winning pitcher Standlee (3-1) in the eighth and closed with Peyton Battenfield. Basso and Battenfield also pitched in the morning game against TCU.
“We had used pretty much every arm in the bullpen before that (championship) game, so I knew I was gonna have to go as long as I could,” Standlee said.
Although Battenfield surrendered one run in the ninth, he struck out left fielder TJ Lake to seal the Cowboys’ victory.
OSU had to recover after a Saturday night loss to TCU, but Sunday marked a beginning. As the morning sun streamed across the diamond and the Cowboys tossed baseballs to each other before the 9 a.m. game, they exuded a reawakened energy. Playing two games, including one with an extra inning, in one day couldn’t hold them back from a championship. As they await their NCAA regional fate, which they will discover at 7:30 p.m. Sunday night, they plan to celebrate their Big 12 Tournament victory with a tradition: eating ice cream.
Holliday, like Simpson, emphasizes team bonding. After the championship game, Holliday embraced Simpson and thanked him for spending his senior year at OSU.
“This, in many ways, is Colin’s team,” Holliday said. “And he’s being gracious, as he should be, but he deserves a lot of credit.”