Simmons Field: High Noon for Mizzou Baseball

Mizzou Baseball's first bite of 2014 has included scrambled schedules, a juiceless offense, defense that's just waffle, and pitching that's G-R-R-REAT!

Tim Jamieson's Tigers are 8-7 after their first month of play. That's better than their 5-7 record at this point a year ago. But the breakfast portion of the schedule is over, and the SEC is coming for lunch.

Scrambling for Games

In 2013, Tim Jamieson laid part of the blame for his team's dismal performance to the difficulty in getting to practice or play in the early weeks of the season due to horrible weather.

In 2014, Jamieson has been bound and determined to beat Mother Nature at her game. He and his staff have tackled the twists and turns of this season's opening weeks with a scrambling ingenuity worthy of an episode of MacGyver. So far in 2014, MU has dealt with 1 cancelled flight, 2 re-located series, 1 hurriedly arranged substitute game cancelled and rescheduled, a 2-game set cancelled, a rain delay combined with a Tex Little delay, the home opener postponed an entire week, and another 2-game set rescheduled as a double-header, which included yet another rain delay.

As the season opening Valentine's Day weekend approached, a wicked winter storm pushed through the Southeast and the Tigers' flight through Atlanta to Jacksonville, FL, was cancelled. So the coaches got on the phones and struck a deal with McNeese State, who had scheduled a 3-game set against Chicago State. Mizzou and Southern Miss, who had also had their planned weekend cancelled, joined the Cowboys and the Cougars for an impromptu 4-team tournament.

Speaking of adjustments, JuCo transfer Brett Peel was having a great opening weekend in the field at 2nd base, until he broke the hamate bone in his hand. That's the exact same injury Dillon Everett suffered on opening day a year ago. Ironically, Everett was moved back into 2B from the outfield for a few games. Josh Lester has since played 2B while waiting the 4-6 weeks until Peel is cleared to play.

The Tigers returned from that opening weekend with a 2-1 record, besting their 0-3 start from a year ago.

The second weekend began with a rain delay and a Voice delay. Tex Little's flight out of Columbia was delayed and rerouted, forcing him to overnight in Dallas on the way to North Carolina. He arrived at the ballpark 15 minutes after game time. Not only did the broadcast have to get underway without the long-time Voice of the Tigers, but he had all the broadcast equipment with him. So Hunter Mense and "Big Time" Shawn Davis threw together a makeshift set-up to get on the air. They handled the first half inning, sounding like they were broadcasting from a janitor's closet, using a pair of tin cans and a string.

Hunter quickly showed he had been trained well by Tex, excitedly announcing at one point, "A swing and a miss, and Kendall Keeton drives one up the middle!"

Tex took over in the bottom of the first inning. His first line was a vintage Tex-ism: "My arms are tired. I've been flappin' all the way here."

The Tigers stumbled through that Carolina road trip with only a single win against 4 losses. The teams they lost to included Cincinnati, Liberty, and Campbell, names that don't sound like much to fans who mostly know college football, but are schools with some recent history of baseball competitiveness.

Having weathered the adversities of the opening road trips, the 3-5 Tigers were scheduled to open their March home stand on February 28th. But with March forecast to come in like a polar bear in Columbia, the schedule again was disassembled with a butter knife and reassembled with earwax, landing Mizzou and their scheduled opponent, Illinois-Chicago, in Little Rock, setting up yet another patchwork tournament with Arkansas-Little Rock and IPFW. Speaking of cobbled together craziness, what kind of insane name is Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne? Even crazier, the Tigers somehow managed to lose their game to IPFW, a team with an RPI ranked 289th out of 302 teams, (kislanko.com).

The weather wasn't done messing with the schedule, though. That UA-LR game got postponed until the Trojans come to Taylor Stadium the last week of March, and the planned mid-week pair against Alabama A&M got cancelled altogether.

The week-delayed home opening weekend featured 2 out of 3 days of decent weather, 2 out of 3 wins for the Tigers, and 3 straight appearances by UMC Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin (complete with bow tie each time). During the Sunday game, @bowtieger spent a while chatting with A.D. Mike Alden, presumably firming up plans for a multi-million dollar softball/baseball retractable roof stadium (#stubblebubble)

The weather man finally brought a welcome Spring-like week, but slipped in a cold day with "the last snow of the year" just to stir things up. The last pre-SEC set, a pair of games against the 1-13 Alcorn State Braves, turned into a 7-hour rain-delayed double header, with the Tigers sweeping the Braves. The wins put the Tigers at 8-7 and rescued them from being the only SEC tam with a losing record, heading into the conference schedule.

Pitching

Tim Jamieson also has shown a willingness to adapt and change in his approach to the game on the field, at least in terms of adopting an SEC-style approach to pitching, building a rotation starting with the closer and working backward.

Of the 6 leading ERAs on the staff, only one has a regular starter. RHP Keaton Steele (0.00 ERA) has a firm hold on the closer job, with 4 saves. RHP Breckin Williams (1.32) is being used most often as the set-up man. LHP Austin Tribby (0.00), RHP Andrew Schwab (3.86), and RHP Griffin Goodrich (2.70) flesh out the rest of that cream of the crop bullpen.

The one regular starter among the team leaders is RHP Brett Graves (2-1, 0.98), who has been dominating so far. Averaging nearly 7 innings per start, he has limited opponents to a .144 BA, and has given up just 1 walk per game on average.

The rest of the starting rotation, as well as the bullpen, have not done a shabby job themselves, contributing to the team's not shabby 3.16 ERA. Unfortunately, it still ranks next to last in the SEC.

RHP Jace James, last year's master of the mid-week games (2.79 ERA in 7 starts, 42 innings), struggled with arm soreness through his two abbreviated starts in teh first two weeks of this season. He's now awaiting news whether he just needs rest or if something more serious needs to be fixed. His absence from the starting lineup creates a ripple effect all through the pitching staff.

Perhaps the most viral topic of discussion among fans at the ballpark and online has been the status of RHP Alec Rash. The young pitcher spurned a 2nd round offer from the Phillies to come to Mizzou. He's slated to pitch in the elite Cape Cod League this summer. But so far he has only an inconsistent freshman season to show for himself as a collegiate pitcher. This season, he has appeared only twice, for an inning and a third, giving up 3 hits versus 3 strikeouts, one hit batter, and a 0.00 ERA.

Some have speculated he's in Jamieson or Matt Hobbs' doghouse. Or maybe he just needs to find the joy in pitching again.

A healthy, motivated, and effective Rash could be just the boost this team needs.

Offense

"We were kind of backwards today – swinging at stuff we shouldn’t be swinging at, taking pitches that we should be swinging at," Anderson said. "The adjustments came too late." (Columbia Tribune, 3/9/14)

That quote from team leader and 5th year senior Eric Anderson pretty well sums up the Mizzou offense so far. Some would say (accurately) that it sums up the Mizzou offense over the past few years.

Why is Brett Graves, dominant with a .098 ERA, saddled with a W-L record of only 2-1? In his four starts, the team has compiled a total of 10 runs, 8 of those in his two wins.

The current team batting average is .262, which took a jump after they beat up on Alcorn State's pitching, led by Kendall Keeton's 7-for-8 explosion. The question remains whether the offense is finally getting going, or are they being given false hope against lesser competition?

MU's offense ranks near the bottom in the SEC. The team has punched 21 doubles so far, but only 2 triples and 3 homers for the entire team. Over a third of the season's extra bases came in this week's double-header.

At this point in the season, the statistics show a mishmash of conflicting data, reflecting an on-again/off-again offense.

Last season, DH/3B Shane Segovia struggled below the Mendoza line for much of the season, in part due to injuries, pulling his season average up to .223 with a surge in the final weeks. This year he got off to a quick start, with a .325 average. Unfortunately, a strained oblique put him on the bench for a few games. In his first at bat after the short break (vs. Alcorn State), he hit his first home run as a Tiger.

1B Kendall Keeton leads the team with a .411 average, and has gotten on base in every game, compiling a .485 on-base percentage. DH/OF Eric Anderson (.324) has stepped into the leadoff role in the lineup, while also earning a starting job as a pitcher. C Dylan Kelly (.357) shares the lead with Segovia in slugging percentage (.500). Seeing four players hitting the ball at a greater than .300 pace is a welcome change from a year ago, when only two players were above .300 at this point in the season.

And yet the offensive production has not been steady. In 4 of their 7 losses, the team scored 2 runs or less, while 46 of the team's 75 runs (61%) came in just 5 of their 15 games (one of which MU lost, 11-8).

A trio of newcomers - SS Ryan Howard, OF Jake Ring, and 3B Zach Levy - have struggled to get their averages up to the .200 mark, yet have been contributing key hits - and defensive plays - to help the team win. Ring's speed and aggressiveness have sparked the offense and created opportunities in key situations, but his ability to contribute is due more to a .341 OB% than his .182 BA. Lavy, who has flashed the leather at third base, carries a weak .171 average - all singles - yet has somehow managed 7 RBI, second on the team. Howard has come in strong during the home stand, raising his average to .244, with 4 doubles.

The Tigers will need to figure out a way to be more consistent as they head into the buzz saw of the SEC.

Defense

The Tigers' defense has been as up and down as a waffle grid. There are spectacular plays that provide texture and substance to the team's efforts, and there are blunders that allow opponents to take advantage and fill up their box score like syrup in a waffle well. OK, enough waffling.

That Sunday game against Southern Miss is a good example. The team somehow managed to rack up 6 errors in the first 6 innings. Along the way, though, a pair of freshmen, CF Jeremy Ring and 3B Ryan Howard, made spectacular plays. And while the errors didn't actually directly play a part in the 2 runs scored in the game, they may have been on the minds of those 5 players when they came up to bat and went a collective 2-for-14.

Overall the Tigers have 21errors in 15 games, which is more than a little upside down. A year ago at this point in the season, they had committed 19 errors in 11 games.

Here Comes the SEC

Beginning this Friday, Mizzou will face teams for the next 10 weeks that will, for the most part, hit better, pitch better, and field better than the teams they've faced to date. Tim Jamieson's squad will need to step up their game in every area to avoid being left looking for scraps beneath the conference table.

When the 2014 SEC schedule came out, it looked like the Tigers would get a softer start to the SEC season this year than they did last season, when they played their first ever SEC series at home against the national champion Gamecocks. This time, the perennial cellar-dwelling Tennessee Volunteers lead off the conference schedule.

Who knew the Volunteers would get off to a 15-1 start, be ranked 33rd in RPI, and ranked 22nd in Baseball America's Top 25?

It doesn't get any better from there. Two of MU's first three road series in the SEC are against Mississippi (16-2, ranked 21st) and Kentucky (13-4, 22nd).

Auburn (11-6) and Georgia (12-6) round out the first half of the Tigers' SEC games. Both of those teams were cellar dwellers in 2013 and are playing under new head coaches this season, so they're bound to be up and down all season. Mizzou needs to step up and win those series, because the second half of the SEC schedule, beginning mid-April, includes three current top 25 teams and two more that may very well be ranked by the time they face the Tigers. While 2013's SEC schedule was heavily front-loaded for Mizzou, this season it's going to be brutal in the home stretch.

Outlook

So what can we expect from this team, based on what we've seen so far?

With a bit of good development from young hitters (Ring, Howard, Lavy) continued health and production by Segovia and Anderson, and the return to health of Peel, and Logan Pearson, the offense could develop into being a bit better than last year.

The pitching is already comparable to last year. If Alec Rash comes out of the closet and lives up to even some of his potential, the pitching staff could be better than last year. Or it could all go south quickly with slow development and some injuries.

Which means the team could sneak into the SEC Tournament like last year, be more comfortably in at 8th to 10th seed, or fall flat and not make it at all. It is likely, though, based on what we've seen so far, that this team will not be good enough to get into the NCAA Regionals without being at least an 8 seed in the SEC, followed by a good deep run in that tournament. That can happen if the team continues to build momentum as they march through the SEC schedule.

The momentum of sweeping a double-header can be heady. But some of the SEC teams coming up are as different from Alcorn State as the National League is from the SEC. The sugar rush after such a feast will only carry this team so far. The lessons learned from a difficult opening month can lead them greater consistency . Otherwise the SEC will eat these Tigers' lunch.

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