Masters of the mound: Johnson, Oquendo strong out of Lamar bullpen

Published 12:02 am Thursday, March 31, 2016

BEAUMONT — Jimmy Johnson and Enrique Oquendo combine for a 7-0 record and six saves for Lamar this season — without a start.

But ask them how they’ve stayed out of the loss column so far, and they’ll point to the Cardinals’ batting.

“We’re a resilient group, and it speaks volumes about our lineup,” said Johnson, a junior from Palestine. “I have six wins out of the bullpen, and that speaks volumes about how our lineup is able to not give up until the last pitch, the last out of the game. They just keep fighting to the very end.”

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The Cards’ 4-2 victory at Texas on Tuesday, their third against a former national champion team this season, may be best remembered for Jake Nash’s single that led to two runs (one on an error), but it also proved to be the perfect highlight up to this point for both Johnson (6-0, 1.59 ERA, three saves) and Oquendo (1-0, 1.65 ERA, three saves) on the mound.

Johnson entered the game for Travis Moore with two outs in the bottom of the sixth and a runner at second. Moore had struck out four and held Texas to an earned run in 2 2/3 innings, but coach Jim Gilligan already had his mind made up that Johnson was going in.

“There are usually two times when you need a closer. One is when [the other team] threatens to have that big inning,” Gilligan said. “I’ve always said if you’re wealthy enough to have two closers on your team, then one to stop that mid-inning and another to close the game down, what a way to go that would be.”

Michael Cantu singled in the tying run off Johnson on the next at-bat, but Johnson retired Zane Gurwitz to end the inning. Johnson struck out two and allowed just one more hit in 2 1/3 innings, setting the stage for Oquendo.

The senior from Euless retired the Longhorns side in order, fanning Gurwitz swinging and Tyler Rand looking to finish the deal.

Oquendo is used to big games, having earned the opening-day save against Southeast Missouri State (2-1 win) and tossing a near-perfect ninth inning against LSU five days later (12-11 win). But he did go through a rough stretch his next three outings, allowing three earned runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings, only to not give up a hit in his last five appearances (8 2/3 innings).

Oquendo “became a pitcher again” in a loss against Houston, Gilligan said, when he struck out two in 1 2/3. His hitless streak began the game before at Northwestern State.

“Just [had to] change my whole demeanor, I guess,” Oquendo said. “Just going out there and believing in myself more and bearing down to get the job done has helped me grow as a pitcher and as a person. Also being a leader because I’m a senior. I just want to go out with the best year possible.”

All but lost in the glory of Lamar’s bullpen are the ongoing hitting streaks of Reid Russell (16 games with a hit) and Stijn van der Meer (14), but it’s not easily forgotten in the minds of Johnson or Oquendo.

“Our hitters have been doing a great job,” Oquendo said. “That’s where, us as pitchers, we get our confidence from. Hitters can hit. If the game is close, they give us those insurance runs late.”

Tuesday’s marquee win was only a perfect example.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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