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Experience will be key in Missouri’s first series against FIU

The veteran Tigers will travel to Miami to take on the new-look Panthers in their first three-game set of the year.

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Missouri is set to open its baseball season with a three-game series in Miami against Florida International on Friday. The Tigers will feature a number of returning players from 2017.

Head coach Steve Bieser will welcome back a good chunk of the core that helped lead his team to a 36-23 record. That includes sophomore pitcher T.J. Sikkema, who was named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America’s Preseason Stopper of the Year Award watch list Monday after posting an 8-2 record with a 2.72 earned run average and 81 strikeouts. Bieser will evidently choose to continue relying on his arm out of the bullpen, and we could see Sikkema in relief in all three meetings with the Panthers.

Experienced pitching will be huge for Mizzou’s success against FIU, and luckily for the Tigers, they bring back three of their four regular starters from last season: seniors Bryce Montes de Oca and Andy Toelken and junior southpaw Michael Plassmeyer.

Montes de Oca was drafted in the 15th round of the 2017 MLB Draft but decided to return to Mizzou for his senior season. The righty struck out 61 batters in 61.0 innings during the 2017 campaign and allowed an opposing batting average of just .205. These numbers, as well as the potential Montes de Oca possesses with a triple-digit fastball, helped land him at No. 2 on PerfectGames’s Top 50 College Seniors list back in January.

Now, Montes de Oca is the pitcher Bieser is calling upon to start Mizzou’s season on a high note.

The Tigers’ weekend rotation will be rounded out by Plassmeyer on Saturday and Toelken on Sunday. Plassmeyer finished 2017 with a 5-1 record while throwing 54 strikeouts to just nine walks, while Toelken closed out his junior season with a 5-3 record and a 2.82 ERA, the second-lowest on the team.

On the offensive side of the ball, Mizzou will be returning five of the six position players who started at least 50 games last season, including seniors Brett Bond and Trey Harris.

Bond, ranked the No. 4 college senior by PerfectGame, hit .307 with 10 home runs and 45 runs batted in 2017. Harris joined Bond and Montes de Oca as a top-50 senior, coming in at No. 32 after hitting .268 with 12 homers and 48 RBI. The two seniors will bring the veteran leadership needed to anchor the Tigers’ middle of the order in 2018.

Sophomore Kameron Misner is the youngest of team’s position stars, but he’s already shown the ability of a proven veteran. Misner had hitting splits of .282/.360/.446 as a freshman, and the lefty’s potential at the plate was enough to net him a spot on the Southeastern Conference’s Preseason All-SEC Second Team.

Considering the experience that Bieser’s team is bringing to the table this weekend, we will be seeing a completely different dynamic from coach Mervyl Melendez’s squad at FIU.

The Panthers are young — plain and simple.

FIU finished the 2017 season with a 31-27 record and a 15-15 conference record, good for seventh in Conference USA. However, the Panthers lost 14 seniors and three juniors to graduation and the Draft, so they will be taking the field with a mostly new set of players.

Melendez will have to search through the 17 fresh faces to replace the production lost from last season. Six of the seven regulars from FIU’s 2017 lineup have moved on, including program fixtures J.C. Escarra, Kenny Meimerstorf and Irving Lopez, who all left the Panthers after being drafted last June.

Only three seniors will be back with FIU in a system devoid of veteran leadership: pitchers Andrew George and Chandler Raiden and outfielder Christian Khawam.

What the team lacks in experience, though, it makes up for in potential.

The one regular bat returning to the lineup for the Panthers will be catcher/infielder Javier Valdes. The sophomore was named to the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s Freshman All-American team last season after hitting .287 with five homers and 36 RBI. Valdes will share time behind the plate with freshman Jose Garcia, but after playing both the outfield and infield last season, he has shown that he can produce wherever he is on the field.

Pitchers Tyler Myrick and Nick MacDonald, who joined Valdes on CBN’s list, will again be mainstays on FIU’s the pitching staff. Myrick, who went 6-2 with a 3.73 ERA last season, will get the ball for the Panthers on Friday against Montes de Oca. Sunday will see Mizzou’s Toelken matched up with MacDonald, who ended 2017 with a 7-3 record and 68 K’s.

Freshman lefty Logan Allen, another potential ace who was named No. 12 on the Top 50 Freshmen Prospects list by Baseball America on Monday, will take the ball for FIU on Saturday.

Expect the battle between experience and potential to be on full display this weekend. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT on Friday.