NORMAN — Hitting is one half of the two-way skillset of Oklahoma State’s Nolan McLean. Within the nation’s 12th-highest scoring offense, few Cowboys possess a more dangerous bat than the 6-foot-4 junior who launched 19 home runs and drove in 47 last spring.
Yet with a fastball that reaches the upper-90s and a matured range of secondary pitches, McLean’s future in the professional ranks of the game likely resides on the pitcher’s mound. It was there that McLean found himself Thursday night, making his first start of the season in No. 25 OSU’s 13-2 win over Oklahoma, at least in part for practical purposes.
“Trying to give our other guys a chance to have full rest,” Cowboys coach Josh Holliday explained. “It’s a short week and we just felt like Nolan deserved a chance to pitch once without having to play right field and warm up in between innings. Getting him back into the pitching mix and using his pitches and kind of getting stretched out so he can be available as an option as we move forward.”
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McLean’s spot start helped pave the way for an OSU victory in the opening game of the Bedlam series on the final weekend of the regular season in Norman. It also allowed the Cowboys to push No. 1 starter Juaron Watts-Brown to throw the middle of the three-game set Friday night at OU’s L. Dale Mitchell Park.
But McLean’s five strikeouts over three one-run innings offered more than a chance at rotation management and a boost to OSU’s Big 12 regular season title chase. With next week’s conference tournament on the horizon and the Cowboys eyeing a first trip to the Men’s College World Series since 2016 later this spring, McLean’s latest outing delivered a reminder of the pitching weapon OSU carries in one of its most feared offensive talents.
“Nolan amazes me,” Holliday said late Thursday night. “I think he’s one of the most talented kids I’ve ever seen.”
Altogether, McLean left his first start of 2023 having allowed a lone run on four hits with four walks before Evan O’Toole came on to throw five scoreless innings out of the bullpen for his sixth win of the season.
McLean allowed a single in an otherwise clean first frame, then loaded the bases in each of the next two innings. He wiggled out of the second inning unscathed with a swinging strikeout and pop fly before conceding a run but nothing more from the Sooners’ third-inning rally.
“I saw him make big pitches when it mattered most there when those guys got on base,” Holliday said. “He dug in there and found in his heart the ability to make a key pitch. It shows that competitive spirit that makes him who he is. Even though he wasn’t maybe as efficient or sharp as he wanted to be, he was still elite when it came to being competitive.”
The pitcher OSU saw again Thursday is the pitcher the Cowboys initially planned to utilize plenty this spring, the one who went No. 81 overall to Baltimore Orioles in last June’s MLB Draft before opting to return to Stillwater.
Splitting time between the field and the bullpen in February and March, McLean notched six saves in his first seven appearances in 2023. That bright start hit a snag on April 1 when McLean exited a 4-1 win against Texas with a leg injury that kept him from the lineup for a full month and out of the pitching mix until his return to the mound for three innings against East Tennessee State on May 5.
In that outing and McLean’s follow-up against the Sooners, there were glimpses of the pitcher OSU has available once again entering the business end of the season.
“If you think back to when he was healthy and pitching, he was leading the country in saves,” Holliday said. “He was incredible. An important piece of the staff that allowed other guys to fall down into different roles and innings.”
Between his role in the Cowboys’ surging lineup and the security OSU has in Watts-Brown and fellow starter Ben Abram, McLean’s reemergence on the mound isn’t likely to shake up Holliday’s rotation from the outset of postseason play.
But whether he’s starting, closing or carrying the Cowboys through the middle innings, McLean has a repertoire and a demeanor OSU can hope to lean on, however deep its postseason run goes.
The performance in the Bedlam opener provided the latest evidence of that.
“He can strike batters out and when the games are on the line and the stage is big, that’s what he’s built for,” Holliday said. “He’s another guy that hopefully can be super comfortable in those moments.”