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Simmons Field: Looking for 'Signs' of Life

Following the 2014 Mizzou Baseball season is like watching an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

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3rd Base deck at Taylor Stadium
3rd Base deck at Taylor Stadium
Photo by Trrippleplay

Ever since Haley Joel Osment saw dead people, M. Night Shyamalan has been making movies that meander along with semi-suspenseful plot twists, a few startling jump scenes, and all leading to an unexpected climax.

Sgt. Cunningham: You didn't used to play baseball did ya? S**t, I know you. You're Merrill Hess! I was there the day you hit that 507-footer over the left field wall, set the record. Man, that thing had a motor on it. It's still the record right?

Merrill: Got the bat at home on the wall

Sgt. Cunningham: You've got two minor league home-run records, don't ya?

Merrill: Five.

Sgt. Cunningham: Why weren't you in the pros making stacks of cash and getting your toes licked by beautiful women?

Lionel Prichard: 'Cause he has another record most people don't know about. He has the minor league strikeout record.


Sgt. Cunningham: You really got the strikeout record?

Merrill: Felt wrong not to swing.

- from Signs, 2002, by M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night's separated-at-birth brother, T. J., seems to have a knack for directing similarly enigmatic scripts for Mizzou Baseball. Two-thirds of the way through the 2014 season, halfway through the conference schedule, and I'm still trying to figure out where this is headed.

There are the usual oddities that have popped up throughout the season to pique the interest of the crowds: the Beatles-esque "Paul is Dead" disappearance of the 0.00 ERA Alec Rash for nearly a month, Breckin Williams' signature bullpen-to-mound #breckinball dash that caught national attention on ESPNU, and the outcropping of facial hair on the team, including Coach J's goatee.

Then there's been the comic relief side plot of the Taylor Stadium Event Staff's new get-tough stance on squatters, checking season tickets at every game (even when there's hardly anyone there), reminding the general admission commoners that they have to wait until the middle of the 3rd inning inning to find an unoccupied seat in the lower section... which of course has created a new tradition of the thundering herd descending the moment that 15th out is called.

There have, however, been some moments that bring the fans to the edge of their seats, spilling the non-alcoholic from their $1 yellow cups.

The Jump Scenes

The team has struggled against SEC competition, but caught a lot of attention when they surprised Auburn, taking two of three. Keaton Steele was named the SEC Pitcher of the Week for his performance in that series, earning two saves in the Tigers' pair of wins.

This past week's games vs. in-state rival Missouri State and at #15 Kentucky provided their share of excitement.

RHP/OF/DH Eric Anderson, previously best known for his repeated bad luck with injuries, is making good use of his NCAA-granted 5th year of eligibility to be a 2-way leader on the team (.339 BA, .3 HR, 18 BB, 523 Slg %; 2-2 W-L, 3.15 ERA). He's taken over the lead-off spot for most games, and in game 3 of the recent Georgia series he carried the team on his shoulders with a dominant complete game pitching performance (12 Ks) to avoid the sweep. Then he did it again the following Sunday with 2 RBI and 10 Ks, earning SEC Player of the Week honors He has emerged in the April as the team's most reliable and dominant pitcher, in addition to being one of the team leaders offensively.

RHP Brett Graves (3-2, 2.67 ERA)has been a joy to watch as he lives up to that oft repeated comment by Ian Kinsler that Graves has "big league stuff". He was the unrivaled ace of the staff in the first half of the season, but has struggled a bit for a few games after getting beaned in the head during pre-game warm-ups at Auburn. He was named the SEC Pitcher of the Week earlier in the season during a streak of 16.1 consecutive shut-put innings.

The bullpen, led by RHP Breckin Williams, LHP Austin Tribby, and closer RHP Keaton Steele, has offered up some great moments to keep the Tigers in games. Tribby has been the workhorse of the staff, appearing in 22 games and posting a 2.81 ERA.

Various position players have taken turns leading the offense for the team, including C Dylan Kelly (currently leads with a .343 BA, 17 RBI, 1B Kendall Keeton (currently leads with 40 hits, 7 of 9 SB), and 2B Shane Segovia (11 2B).

A couple of freshmen have provided some excitement. CF Jake Ring occasionally reminds everyone he is definitely a freshman, but then "The Squirrel" will provide a "wow" moment with a great play in the outfield or with some daring base running or bunting. 3B Ryan Howard is among the team leaders in RBI, showing he'll be a contributor for a few years.

OF Logan Pearson missed the first month of the season while recovering from a hamstring injury, but has come on strong since, leading the team with a .429 OB%.

The Plot Thickens Drags

The usual knock on the 2014 Tigers (and the Tiger 9s of the past several years) is a lack of consistency. I prefer to view it as too much consistency, like lumpy gravy or a story-line dragged to a crawl by too many sub-plots (sort of like this article).

While the pitching has generally been the bright spot of this team, Mizzou's ERA ranks last in SEC-only games. The pitching staff can put together a streak of tightly controlled, low scoring games, and then turn around andsuffer a meltdown like they did in game 2 against Kentucky. Some will say it's because Jamieson isn't bringing in the elite pitching recruits like his SEC opponents do. Pitching Coach Matt Hobbs gets the blame from some followers. Others blame the toughness of the SEC, although Cincinnati and IPFW are certainly not in the SEC, and the Tigers surrendered 11 runs to each of those mighty opponents.

The most obvious problem with the pitching, though, is that their confidence is continuously dragged down by a lack of support from the offense. They do their best to keep the opponents' run total down, but between trips to the mound they're forced to sit in the dugout and "see dead people".

Quotes like this one tell the story:

The Missourian: Missouri baseball finds offense in win over Missouri State:

The Tigers had six extra-base hits in the game [against Missouri State] compared to just one extra-base hit in their three-game series against Georgia.

"It really was amazing," Missouri pitcher Breckin Williams said. "We were sitting down in the bullpen, and we were like 'What the heck's going on? This isn't us.'"

By the numbers, the offense looks better than it did a year ago at the half-way point through the SEC schedule. The team batting average is .266 instead of .246. And the current overall record of 17-17 is better than 12-22 at the same point a year ago, the SEC record after five series is 6-9 is ahead of last season' 4-11.

The current team numbers compared to where the team was 5 weeks ago, heading into the conference schedule, are holding fairly steady. The team batting average has moved a small amount (up to .266 from .261). That steady team BA, though, is attributable to a mixture of some players bringing their averages up above the Mendoza line (IF/OF Dillon Everett, .244, and and CF Jake Ring, .228) and others suffering a big drop in their averages (1B Kendall Keeton, from .411 to .292, and 2B Shane Segovia, from .385 to .268).

When the Tigers are able to hit the ball and get on base, they are too often unable to play out the script and score runs. Game two of the Tennessee series typifies the problem.

The Maneater: Tigers can't capture series win over Tennessee:

"Today sucked," senior designated hitter Eric Anderson said.

Missouri loaded the bases three times in the first game. Anderson stepped to the plate two of those times, in the fourth and sixth innings. Both plate appearances ended with a ground ball to the shortstop and no runs.

"It was frustrating to have so many opportunities to score runs," coach Tim Jamieson said. "The difference in the game was they got the hits when they needed them, and we didn’t."

And just when someone gets a timely hit and you think the offense is going to get moving, then the Base Cadets arrive, stage left, getting caught off base or being over-aggressive. Like in the opening game against Tennessee, when Anderson powered a triple in the first inning, only to get thrown out trying to score on a single to first.

And just when a Mizzou pitcher is doing his job, suddenly the defense disintegrates. The 13 inning Friday night loss against Georgia is a good example.

KBIA Sports Extra: Offense, defense don’t back up Missouri pitching in 13-inning loss:

Defensive lapses in the 13th inning sent Georgia home with the win. Georgia No. 6 hitter Daniel Nichols hit a ball to right-center field that was scored a double, but it would more accurately be called a single and defensive indifference.

Nichols did not settle for a single with his hit to the outfield. He did not stop at first base and instead kept running to second base. Missouri freshman center fielder Jake Ring was slow to get to the ball after it dropped for a hit, and middle infielders Josh Lester and Shane Segovia were not at second base when Nichols slid into the bag.

"It was great base running," Jamieson said of Nichols. "It took advantage of a young pup in the outfield — a guy that made a great play the at bat before to take away a hit. He’ll learn from it. We still make a play after that, it doesn’t cost us. Everything adds up. Every little mistake, you leave yourself wondering."

The next defensive play that was not made came when Georgia No. 7 hitter Stephen Wrenn grounded to third base. Missouri first baseman Kendall Keeton did not hang onto the third baseman’s throw, which allowed Nichols’ pinch runner Skyler Weber to score and put Georgia ahead 2-1.

"Stuff like that happens," said Missouri relief pitcher Keaton Steele, who took the loss. "Kendall catches the ball 99 times out of 100, and if it does happen tomorrow, he’s going to catch it. Freak play. Freak accident."

The error on Keaton was just his second error of the season in 266 opportunities.

I think I've seen this movie before.

Act Three: The Unexpected Finish

With five weeks left in the season, this story line has two or three possible alternate endings.

Alternate ending #1: The team muddles along for the remainder of the season at the same pace they've been on. The season just plays out, with the audience leaving the theater before the credits even start rolling. Ho-hum.

Alternate ending #2: The team flames out spectacularly, going on a nosedive. Reading some of the team comments recently, this is a real possibility if something doesn't change.

The Maneater: Missouri baseball fumbles away second game against Georgia:

"It’s very frustrating," senior catcher Dylan Kelly said. "As a catcher, as a senior, as a baseball player, it’s very frustrating to lose, and it’s become too easy on this team."

His thoughts were echoed by starter Miles.

"No heart," Miles said. "We didn’t battle enough. We can be a really good ballclub if we want to, but it’s a choice."

The road will not get any easier for the Tigers, either. Their next five series will be against the top of the SEC and top of the country.

"We need to take care of the little things, and battle a little more," Kelly said. "I just want to see a little heart. Some guys have the heart, and some guys don’t. Once everyone doesn’t, you can totally see it."

Neither Ending #1 or Ending #2 gets Mizzou into the SEC Tournament, let alone an NCAA Regional.

And then there's Alternate Ending #3, the ending you unexpect. Coach Tim Jamieson rallies the team and they march their way through the south on their way to the post-season in Hoover, and on to the NCAA Regionals.

The biggest obstacle to that happy ending is that someone in the SEC scheduling office didn't pace this script very well. While last season the Tigers were hit with SEC powerhouses like South Carolina and Florida early in the season, this year the schedule is back-loaded. Starting with the Kentucky series just completed, Mizzou is facing a solid slate of SEC teams that are nationally ranked: #24 Mississippi State (last season's College World Series runner-up), @ #9 Florida, #18 Vanderbilt, @ #11 South Carolina, and closing with unranked Arkansas. Those two remaining road series will be a big challenge, facing both the Gators and the Gamecocks, the two top teams in the SEC East.

Parity has been the buzz word in the SEC this season, with "upsets" happening every weekend. That should give the Tigers hope to be able to make some noise. It's not too late for them to dig themselves out of the hole they're in, although it is a pretty deep hole, being last in both SEC record and overall record, and toward the bottom of most statistical categories in the SEC.

Mizzou has been good enough to win two SEC series (Auburn and Kentucky), and almost good enough to have won another (Georgia). But they've also been bad enough to come close losing a few of the SEC games they won.

The good news is, if you've been waiting for warmer weather to get out to the ballpark, you'll be able to see some of the best teams in the country play. All three of the remaining SEC home opponents will be well worth the price of admission to watch play at Taylor Stadium.

#24 Mississippi State (22-15; 7-8 SEC) is led by volatile head coach John Cohen, who was once an MU assistant under both Gene McArtor and Tim Jamieson.

# 18 Vanderbilt (27-10; 7-8) is tough but has some flaws that Mizzou may be able to exploit.

Unranked Arkansas (22-15; 7-8) has struggled this year, but are still tough and have proven they can win big games. And riding that Razorbacks bus into town will be their first-year assistant coach Tony Vitello, former Mizzou player and assistant, as well as volunteer assistant coach Brad Flanders, former Mizzou catcher.

The top 12 teams, out of 14, qualify for the SEC Post-season Tournament. Last season Mizzou clinched the 12th spot on the final weekend of the regular season, and went on to lose to Mississippi State in a 1-and-done elimination match-up.

If Mizzou continues at their current .400 pace through the remainder of the SEC schedule, there won't be any last minute surprises. But if they pick up the pace and get some momentum going, this show could keep us all in our seats until after the credits have rolled. Which way will it go? I sure don't know, and neither do they.

And that's what it's all about, isn't it? Watching the show, enjoying the drama of how it all all plays out. If we only cared about the final result, we'd settle for checking the daily box scores and the standings. But we want more. We want to see the plot unfold, to watch the development of the characters, to sit on the edge of our seats and cheer for the good guys.

So grab the popcorn and settle in.