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Simmons Field: 5 Questions 5 Weeks Before Opening Day

Football is done pickin' Cotton, Basketball is dribbling toward Madness. It's time to start thinking about Tiger Baseball.

Simmons Field under snow
Simmons Field under snow

The players are returning from the holidays and they're ready to get going with pre-season practice. The season opener is just 5 weeks away, so there's not much time to prepare.

Mizzou Baseball fans also don't have much time to get up to speed on the 2014 version of the Stitch-Head Tigers. Let's start by asking a handful of key questions.

1. Who is on Mizzou's 2014 schedule?

The official 2014 schedule was released today. Missouri's Strength of Schedule in 2013 was ranked 11th in the nation by The 2014 schedule looks to be comparable.

The D-1 Baseball season officially opens on Valentine's Day this season, and Mizzou's schedule shows some hopefully sunny climes for the two opening weekends (Jacksonville, FL and Winston-Salem, NC). Then there's the home opening series beginning February 28th, which, after last year's early season snowpocalypse, may be a bit optimistic (although their opponent, Illinois-Chicago, won't likely be intimidated by Taylor Stadium weather).

The non-conference home schedule includes a good series against Southern Mississippi in March, and the usual home-and-away set against Missouri State.

A highlight of the non-con schedule will be a game between Mizzou and Wichita State at Kauffman Stadium in April. This will be the first regular season meeting of those two teams since 2001, and will give Tiger fans a chance to see the new version of the Shockers under their new head coach Todd Butler, a former Arkansas assistant. The Tigers will also be playing a couple of games at Frontier League stadiums: versus Southern Illinois at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O'Fallon, MO, and a game against Illinois at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, IL.

The highlight of the SEC schedule will be a mid-April Taylor Stadium series against the 2013 College World Series runner-up, Mississippi State, coached by former Missouri assistant coach John Cohen. Also coming to Columbia are SEC stalwarts Arkansas and Vanderbilt. both in May.

Hopefully the 2014 schedule will fare better than 2013, when the schedule was demolished by a meteorological wrecking ball. 5 games were cancelled, and 12 others were postponed or rescheduled due to weather. However, the last time I remember the season starting on Valentine's Day, the first game was actually at Simmons Field (pre-Taylor Stadium) and it was a pleasant and sunny day at the ballpark. But don't count on that.

2. Will the 2014 offense be as bad as 2013?

This may be the most important question to be answered this season. The 2013 Tigers managed only a .245 batting average as a team. Four regular starters with over 100 at-bats hit under .250 for the season. As late as April 7th, four of those starters were hitting under .220, two of them under the Mendoza line.

The 2013 team hit 15 home runs(fewest since 1973), 64 doubles(fewest since '75), 205 runs (fewest since '73), 402 hits (fewest since '83), 185 RBI (fewest since '73),and 161 walks (fewest since '73). And you can't blame it on the "step up" to the SEC. The team's offensive production number actually increased overall after the conference season was under way.

So what can we expect for 2014? 2 of the top 3 hitters last season are gone. Those 4 starters who hit less than .250 in 2013 are back, and will make up up a significant part of the daily lineup this season.

The natural state of college baseball is that every year fans wonder how the team can possibly replace the production of the players who left. And every year there are new players who step up their game and take over leadership. We're all just going to have to wait and see whether the 2014 lineup has what it takes to climb out of a pretty deep hole.

3. Will the pitching staff be as good as it was last year?

The bright side of 2013 was the pitching. It' says something about how poor the offense was that a team with an 18-32 record (fewest wins since 1975) had a team earned run average of 3.87 (surpassed only by '04-'06 Scherzer teams since 1981). And this was in spite of Eric Anderson returning from his second surgery slower than hoped, plus the slow development of freshman Alec Rash, who chose MU after being drafted by the Phillies in the 2nd round.

The good news is that six pitchers who started 37 of the 50 games in 2013 are back. Senior RHP Eric Anderson appears to be healthy and ready for a full season. Sophomore RHP Alec Rash has a year of experience under his belt and all indications are that we could see as big an uptick in performance and consistency as Mizzou's last pitching phenom, Max Scherzer, did between his freshman and sophomore years. Just this morning my optometrist told me Rash is gong to have a great season, and I always believe my doctors.

They will be supported by a half dozen returning pitchers who did well or showed promise in 2013, plus a crop of newcomers. The two top ranked recruits were lost in the draft, but there are still some good new pitchers on the roster.

If the starters show a decent amount of improvement from their good 2013 performance, this staff could be even better than last season's.

4. How far into the post-season can this team go?

Last year's team barely got into the first round of the SEC tournament, where they were matched up against the eventual CWS runner-up in a 1-and done game. If you had asked me on May 1st if they were even going to make it to the SEC Tourney, I would have laughed (in fact I did laugh), based on their lackluster season-long showing.

Even if the offense moves it up a notch from 2013, the pitching staff will still have to be dominant to overcome what may still be scant run support..

The question would then come up about the impact of another poor season on Tim Jamieson's job security. After the final Big XII season, when TJ left his team to win the Big XII Tournament Championship, he was given a three year contract extension. That championship effort, even in the light of what have been some less than stellar seasons over the past four years, rightfully earned him a three year chance to show he can bring Missouri Baseball up to a level to compete in the SEC. Even a bad 2014 season is unlikely to shorten that 3-year lifeline, since Mike Alden has consistently shown he doesn't like to pay coaches who are no longer coaching and whose name is not Quin.

5. Will the fans show up at Taylor Stadium to watch Mizzou Baseball?

They ought to. You ought to. Yes, you, sitting there basking in the glow of Mizzou Football's Cotton Bowl victory and wondering if you'll ever be able to get over Henry Josey leaving. Five reasons why:

  • The SEC is the best conference in College Baseball. Fans have a chance to see Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas at Simmons Field this season. It's pretty much a lock that at least one if not more of those three will be playing in Omaha in June. And those three are all coming to town during the warm(er) part of the schedule.

  • Do you remember what it was like to watch 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer pitch when he was a Missouri Tiger? You don't? It's entirely possible that you have a similar opportunity in 2014, if Alec Rash lives up to what is expected of him. You don't want to miss out on that. (No pressure, Alec. Just keep being you.)

  • MU Baseball, like MU Softball, offers an entirely different atmosphere than the big sports of football and basketball. The regular fans get to know each other, they get to know the parents and families of the players, and there's a laid back camaraderie among the faithful followers. And you can get a seat that puts you right up close to the action without taking out a loan to buy the tickets.

  • Yes, it can be cold sometimes. Actually, it can be downright nasty sometimes. But the same is true of football, and thousands show up for that. True Sons (and daughters) take a perverse pride and pleasure in braving the elements to support Ol' Mizzou. Layer up in black & gold and keep yourself warm by heckling the opposition.

  • It's baseball. It astounds me how many Cardinals and Royals fans there are in Columbia and on campus who have never been to a Mizzou Baseball game. Actually, it shouldn't surprise me at all, because I've lived in an around Columbia since 1965 and only began going to games at Simmons Field around 1990. When I think of all the great baseball I missed during the Hi Simmons and Gene McArtor years, it makes me want to weep. I never saw Phil Bradley or Dave Silvestri play baseball at Mizzou. As a baseball fan, you owe it to yourself to take yourself out to the ballgame. Take yourself out with the crowd. Buy yourself some peanuts and... well, you know.