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COLUMN: Oklahoma Pitcher Cade Horton Deserved a Better Fate

The Sooners' co-ace was a superstar on the biggest stage against Ole Miss in Sunday's national championship series, but he got a no-decision.

OMAHA — Cade Horton deserved a better fate.

Oklahoma’s outstanding redshirt freshman got the call to pitch Sunday’s back-to-the-wall national championship game in the College World Series, and he turned in a performance for the ages.

After dropping the best-of-3 opener Saturday night, the Sooners needed to win Sunday to keep their title hopes alive.

Horton was up to the task.

Horton was electric, striking out 13 Ole Miss batters — a record for the CWS championship series and a career-high for Horton. He faced just four hitters over the minimum before a one-out single in the eighth inning.

But in a one-run game, and against a hot-hitting and resilient Ole Miss lineup, that one single became one run, and the Sooners suffered a dramatic 4-2 loss to the Rebels before 25,792 fans on a sun-baked afternoon at Charles Schwab Field.

"Just (stuck) with my routines," Horton said. "Take a deep breath every time before I delivered the pitch. If it was a ball and I thought it was a strike, just step off the mound, take a deep breath and lock back in."

Horton pitched 7 1/3 innings, threw 107 pitches, gave up just four hits, two earned runs, allowed zero walks and fired 79 strikes.

He ended up with a no-decision, however.

"I just stuck to what I've been doing the last few starts," Horton said, "and that was taking it one pitch at a time."

Ole Miss’ pitching staff of Hunter Elliott, Mason Nichols and John Gaddis were every bit as good as Horton, and the Sooner bats — so dynamic coming into the final series — were silent for the second day in a row.

That didn’t give closer Trevin Michael much wiggle room as he came in to pitch the eighth.

"Cade was at the end of his rope, and he wanted to keep going," OU coach Skip Johnson said. "Really proud of what he did."

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Impossibly, however, Michael — one of the best and most reliable closers in college baseball — gave up two singles and two wild pitches and the Rebels responded with three runs that pushed the ninth inning all but out of reach. Ole Miss closer Brandon Johnson came in to pitch the ninth and shut down any hopes of a Sooner rally — and touched off a confetti-and-streamers dogpile on the mound afterward.

"Yeah, (Horton) wanted to go back out that (eighth) inning, and I said, 'If one guy gets on, we're going to go to Trevin,' " Johnson said. "You could see him on the mound. That's what you want out of a young man.

"Sooner or later, we as coaches and as pitching coach as I am, I got to take the ball out of his hand because he's going to go until he can't go anymore. That's in his DNA. He's going to battle you."

OU was hoping to win its first national championship in baseball since 1994, and the third in school history. The Sooners also wanted to join the OU softball squad on this year’s NCAA trophy pedestal. That would have made Oklahoma the first school in history to win the “Diamond Double.”

Instead, the Sooners (45-23) settle for second.

A year after they missed the NCAA Tournament with a losing record and were picked sixth in the Big 12 race, OU caught fire down the stretch of the regular season, then turned up the heat in the postseason. Winning four times in the Big 12 Tournament, three times in the Gainesville Regional and twice in the Virginia Tech Super Regional — then three times in Omaha — showed what the program is capable of under Johnson.

Ole Miss won the state of Mississippi's second straight baseball national championship (Mississippi State won it last year) and becomes the first men's team in school history to win an NCAA crown.

Johnson files this one away under painful memories — he said in the postgame press conference that it was too soon to reflect on the magnitude of the season and that he was "pissed off about losing" — but he’ll soon turn his attention to his roster, those coming back and those turning professional.

It seems almost a lock now that Horton — a former quarterback at Norman High and Sooner fan growing up — is heading to pro baseball. If he does, he'll join a handful of his teammates.

"It's been wild," Horton said. "It's been fun. Hopefully next year we can get back here."

And while that may seem like a no-brainer for him — some project he could be a first-round draft pick — it’s too bad for Horton and his team and his stellar one-year legacy at OU. Hearing him talk Sunday, it was clear he wanted to say he was coming back.

"He wanted to keep going," Johnson said, "(but) I've got to look out for him and his future." 

Horton was that close to victory on the biggest stage, that close to giving the Sooners one last shot on Monday to win it all. He did everything he could.

He deserved a better fate.