Mizzou Baseball, after winning the tournament championship in their final season in the Big 12, has gone three straight seasons without making it to the NCAA Regionals, compiling an overall record of 68-93. In spite of that streak, the team seems very upbeat, positive that the 2016 season will be their moment.
After a 30-28 season that placed Missouri sixth in conference win percentage in the Southeastern Conference in 2015, the Tigers did not get a bid for the College World Series. "The emotion that we had when we didn't get the call, it hit me a little bit," Houck said. "The next thing I thought was 'Alright, what can I do to help improve this team?' We all feel like we've worked our tails off all offseason." (Columbia Missourian, 2/12/16)
The Tigers are ranked 15th in the Perfect Game Preseason Top 25, predicted to place 3rd in the SEC East.. That's the highest ranking the Tigers have had since 2009. Collegiate Baseball's Preseason Top 40 has Missouri at #34.
There are others who are skeptical. D1Baseball.com does not have MU in their Top 25, predicting a 5th place finish in the SEC East, which would actually be a worse showing than last year's 3rd place. They do, however, tag MU as being one of 10 SEC teams to make the Regionals, which would be an improvement from last year. MU also failed to make Baseball America's 25 and are not listed among SEC teams likely to make the NCAA Regionals.
The wolf climbing the hill will always be hungrier than the wolf on top.— Ryan Howard (@Ryan8Howard) January 22, 2016
Tim Jamieson's Moment
2016 is Coach J's 22nd year as head coach of the Tigers. He was given a 3-year opportunity to show he deserves to still be in that job when Mack Rhoades extended his contract in June.
Now, we’ve got to start winning baseball games. I think the program this year took some steps in that direction. We were the first team out, I think it was, in terms of the NCAA Tournament. The program improved. I just felt like Tim earned that right to continue on and maybe build upon some of the forward movement this year and then, also, making a commitment to help him with some additional resources, whether it’s in the way they travel or some more money in terms of hiring an assistant coach, etc. I think he earned that. Columbia Tribune, 8/11/15
@Ryan8Howard on Coach J returning: "I wouldn't want to play for any other coach that wasn't Coach J."— Jason Lowenthal (@JLowHP12) February 12, 2016
Is Jamieson going to do anything different that he's done the past 21 years in order to compete in the SEC? Probably a few things. He's hired Jerry Zulli as a new assistant coach and brought back former MU catcher J.C. Field as a volunteer assistant and former MU infielder Brett Peel as a graduate assistant. But mostly, he has proven he subscribes to the WDWWD philosophy of former MU Football coach Gary Pinkel. He believes his system can work.
The Tigers' Moment
The MU offense could use a lot more productive moments in 2016. The 2015 team batting average was .258, ranking 13th in the SEC. Only one player (Ryan Howard) hitting over .300. The top home run producer from last year (Josh Lester) is gone, leaving behind a lineup that accounted for only 26 of the team's HRs in 2015.
The 2016 roster features several newcomers, several bona fide draft prospects, and a few players who hope to this season is their moment to shine.
The Tigers' daily lineup will be led by a pair of Juniors, SS Ryan Howard (coming off a great summer with Team USA) and CF Jake Ring, both of whom will be watched closely by scouts as potential draft picks. D1Baseball.com's list of the top 300 college prospects for the 2016 draft lists Howard at #96, Ring at #216.
According to Tim Jamieson, Howard will be the starting shortstop and will begin the season as the lead off batter, which is an interesting choice.
Coach J on @Ryan8Howard returning: "He's the best shortstop in our league and we're the best league in the country. He's on a mission."— Jason Lowenthal (@JLowHP12) February 12, 2016
Among the returning Sophomores, C Brett Bond and OF Trey Harris were major contributors to the Mizzou defense and offense and will be looked to as key components again in 2016. Another returning sophomore, IF Shane Benes, was sidelined by injury for most of the 2015 season and showed potential in the final month. If he puts together the sophomore season everyone expects, he could make a huge difference in the Tigers' offense. He's expected to be the starter at 3B. According to Blake Toppmeyer, Jamieson and the team "gave rave reviews of how Shane Benes is lookg at third base and at the plate.:"
Coach J on Shane Benes staying healthy: "He looks a lot more like the guy we recruited."— Jason Lowenthal (@JLowHP12) February 12, 2016
Senior Zach Lavy will be vying to repeat as the Tigers' starter at 1B, which would leave only the 2B spot to be claimed in the infield. Jamieson told the Columbia Missourian the 2B starter will be a true freshman, either Connor Brumfield or Ian Nelson. Several returning players and new players will compete for the chance at their moment to play in the infield, including newcomers Kaelan Crisosto, Ian Nelson, and Brian Sharp.
The outfield will likely feature CF Jake Ring and LF Trey Harris, leaving plenty of room for others to claim playing time. Dave Matter reports that JuCo transfer Kirby McGuire is the leading candidate to start in RF. Johnny Balsamo, and Marquis Doherty, the Winnetonka HS running back who wants to play both football and baseball at MU, will all be in the mix.
.@MizzouBaseball hard to predict these rankings pre-season, but still waiting for @BaseballAmerica to announce best hair in the @SEC...— Nolan Gromacki (@NolanGromacki) February 9, 2016
The Mizzou pitching staff did fairly well in 2015, posting a staff ERA of 3.65, 6th in the SEC. Two-thirds of the weekend rotation is back, but the bullpen lost some key personnel.
Sophomore RHP Tanner Houck is coming off a great summer with Team USA and is being touted by many in the national college baseball media as a likely #1 draft pick in 2017. He has been racking up the pre-season accolades, including Perfect Game Pre-season All-American 3rd Team and D1Baseball Pre-season All-American 3rd Team.
Senior RHP Reggie McClain will join Houck in the weekend rotation. Perfect Game listed McClain at #8 on their pre-season Top 100 College Seniors. According to reports, Jamieson plans to keep McClain as the Friday night starter, with Houck on Saturdays.
"If Reggie struggles on Friday, which he really didn’t do last year, and we have to use the bullpen, Tanner’s not really going to use very much of the bullpen on Saturday," Jamieson said. "Mainly nothing’s been done for us to switch it. They’re both comfortable pitching on their days." (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2/12)
The third weekend rotation spot will go to whoever steps up and earns it. Among the returning pitchers, last year's set-up man, senior LHP Austin Tribby is perhaps the most likely candidate, offering the Tigers not only a veteran but a left-hander to balance out the weekend. Freshman LHP Michael Plassmeyer has also been mentioned as a possible Sunday starter.
Junior RHPs Griffin Goodrich and Cole Bartlett are both back after sitting out last season with injuries. Sophomores LHP Lake Dabney and RHP Nolan Gromacki (an internet celebrity for a video of Mizzou's dugout warming their hands over his flaming red hair) are the other returning members of the pitching staff who will be trying to take that next step up into earning more innings on the mound. Dabney looked good in his limited innings last year. As for predicting which other returning or new pitchers will become starters or staff the bullpen, it's always difficult to predict which pitchers will turn out to have what it takes to compete at not only the D-I level, but in the SEC.
One unexpected contender for a spot in the rotation or in the bullpen is RHP Tyler Hunt. A star pitcher at Westran High School in Huntsville, MO, Hunt spurned several opportunities to play baseball, choosing instead to walk on to the Mizzou Football team (eventually earning a scholarship). Now he wants to use his one season of remaining eligibility to try his hand at pitching again. It will be interesting to see whether he can get the old magic back and how much he can contribute to the Tiger Nine. Tanner Houck told the media day reporters Hunt is a little rusty but has a good arm.
Hunt was a standout in baseball along with football at Westran and entered his senior season on pace to break the state record of 458 career strikeouts before suffering an elbow injury. He finished with 19 strikeouts in his senior season to tally 413 for his career. Hunt also batted .500, hit five home runs and stole 19 bases as a senior. Columbia Daily Tribune, December 2, 2015
RHP Bryce Montes de Oca, who struggled with wildness in 2015, could be a major factor for Tigers in the bullpen if he puts it all together this season. Everyone's rooting for him to follow up his summer in the Cape Cod League with a great season for the Tigers, but in the two innings I saw him pitch just three weeks before opening day, he looked every bit as overpowering and out of control as he did last season.
The bullpen will see a complete overhaul, with both Breckin Williams and Andrew Schwaab gone, and Tribby likely joining the weekend rotation. Someone will need to step up and claim the closer and set-up roles.
Moments to mark on your calendar
Check out the 2016 Mizzou Baseball schedule poster! It's turning heads!
Just released: The @MizzouBaseball 2016 schedule poster. Two words: Game. Changer. Unbelievable work for the Tigers! pic.twitter.com/S76Jz6EMib— Poster Swag (@SportPosterSwag) January 6, 2016
The calendar may be ground breaking, but the 2016 schedule looks a lot like nearly every other year's Mizzou Baseball schedule. Hit the road to play a mixed bag of opponents in a sunnier climate for the first couple of weeks, schedule some lightweight opponents for a March home stand (and pray for decent weather), then head into the long conference schedule, with a few Midwestern midweek opponents tossed in. The schedule includes 12 games against 2015 College World Series teams, 3 games against Super Regional teams, and 4 games against Regional teams. Six of MU's SEC opponents are ranked in the pre-season Top 25 polls.
Dates to mark these dates on your calendar:
- Looking for a Winter vacation destination? The Tigers will be spending a couple weeks in Ft. Myers, Florida, playing 9 games in 10 days.
- Be sure you're stocked up with road salt and a good snow shovel for the weekend of March 11-13. That's when the Youngstown State Penguins come to town. Historically the aptly name Penguins have brought snow and ice and other wintry weather with them.
- Hope for better weather two weeks later, when the Vanderbilt Commodores come to town. The 'Dores went all the way to the final game of the College World Series last year, finally losing the championship to Virginia. This year they're ranked near the top of every pre-season poll. March 25-27 will be your chance to watch this always exciting team in action.
- The biggest surprise on the schedule: MU vs. SLU at Kauffman Stadium, March 29th. The last time the Tigers and Billikens met was 2009. Since that time, SLU head coach Darin Hendrickson has raised the success level of the Billikens team. Rekindling the rivalry in Kansas City is unexpected.
- The month of April will be great for Mizzou fans. Three 2015 post-season teams will come into Taylor Stadium, one after another: Regional team Auburn (7th-9th), College World Series team LSU (15th-17th), and Super Regional team Missouri State (26th).
- May brings a pair of great mid-week rivalry match-ups. Mizzou meets Super Regional team Illinois at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, IL, on May 3rd, then two weeks later, on the 17th, the Oklahoma Sooners come to Taylor Stadium for a single game. It will be the Baseball Tigers' first Big 12 match-up since they beat the Sooners to win the 2012 Big 12 Championship Tournament.
Will 2016 be Mizzou Baseball's moment? Will Tim Jamieson prove Mack Rhoades was right? The team sure seems to think so. The pre-season promotion has been filled with the #OurMoment hashtag, including the 2016 Mizzou Baseball Media Guide.
And Ryan Howard is right: Average is unacceptable.