On a day when Missouri Baseball celebrated its seniors, it was in the seventh inning Saturday that the Tigers’ seniors really made themselves known.
With Missouri clinging to a 3-2 lead and needing some breathing room, Matt Berler stepped to the plate with bases loaded and no outs and took a 1-0 pitch from Tennessee’s Garrett Stallings deep in the air to left, bouncing off the wall to drive in two.
Trey Harris stepped up two batters later with men on second and third and, after falling behind 0-2, launched a no-doubter deep to left for a three-run shot. The blast put the Tigers up 8-2, and Harris ended his run around the bases with perhaps the biggest home-plate stomp of his career.
“When I got around third, Berler was like ‘stomp, stomp.’ Everybody’s pointing at the plate,” Harris said. “It was just one of those moments where it was crazy.”
Missouri (34-21, 12-18 SEC) would not look back, winning 8-3 and clinching the final spot in the SEC Tournament.
“It’s kind of storybook. That’s what you want to see,” Missouri coach Steve Bieser said of Berler and Harris’ hits. “I was really hoping that a senior was going to be in a spot to win the game. They deserve that.”
The game didn’t start off well for the Tigers, as they went into their first at-bats already trailing 1-0. Tyler LaPlante recorded two quick strike outs to start the game, but Andre Lipcius took the first pitch he saw from the southpaw deep off the scoreboard in left to give Tennessee the early lead.
After watching the Vols quickly tie Friday’s game on a home run, Missouri followed suit on Saturday.
Connor Brumfield led off with a single to center, but he was thrown out on a fielder’s choice after a Harris grounder to second. Harris tried to take second and get into scoring position for Brian Sharp, but he was gunned down by Tennessee’s Benito Santiago.
Turns out, Harris didn’t need to move up, as Brian Sharp crushed the next pitch over the left field wall to tie the score.
Both LaPlante and the Vols’ Will Neely pitched 1-2-3 second innings, but Tennessee again grabbed the lead in the third. Brandon Chinea drilled a one-out double into the left field corner, and Jay Charleston legged out a bunt to the right side to put runners on the corners. Justin Ammons then hit a soft grounder to second that knocked in Chinea and put the Vols up 2-1.
While the Tigers struggled to put runners on base, Tennessee struggled to bring its baserunners in. The Vols had at least one hitter reach base in each of the first six innings but could only get those early two in.
It’s a time-honored idea that good things will happen if you put the ball in play, and Missouri was a prime example of that in the sixth inning.
With two outs, Lipcius cut off a grounder up the middle from Harris and bounced the throw over to first. Harris had the throw beat regardless, but the ball hopped out of play and put Harris on second for Sharp. The junior came through again, drilling a ball through the first baseman’s legs to knock in Harris for the equalizer.
“Brian did a great job of hunting the changeups,” Berler said. “After he hit his home run, they didn’t throw him any more fastballs so he was able to get a barrel, and a miscue from them led to some runs.”
Nile Ball, who’d come on in the sixth to bail LaPlante out of a jam, managed to keep Tennessee off the scoreboard in the top of the seventh. After getting two quick outs, Ball gave up a single, a walk and a passed ball to put two-men in scoring position for Lipcius, the man who gave the Vols the lead in the first. Lipcius couldn’t follow up, however, flying out to right to keep the game tied.
“(Ball) competes, and if you think about it, his stuff really plays well,” Bieser said. “He’s been big in some games for us, and that’s been really important.”
The bottom of the frame was all Missouri’s, as Zach Hanna led off with a long-ball to left to put the Tigers ahead. McDaniel, Bond and Cornelius all reached base to set up Berler’s double, and Harris’ bomb later in the inning officially broke the game open, putting the Tigers up six.
“We both needed to answer the call. Two seniors trying to pave the way, show the younger guys how to do it,” Berler said. “We talk about being the team that doesn’t throw the huge punch, but we throw jabs. We were knocking on the door all day today, and we finally cracked through.”
Ball pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth before giving one back to the Vols in the ninth, but Missouri walked away with a season-saving win over Tennessee.
Looking ahead, Missouri’s win clinches the 12th and final spot in the SEC tournament next week in Hoover, Alabama. The Tigers will take on the No. 5 seed on Tuesday in the late game, and while the opponent has not yet been decided, the standings point to a showdown with South Carolina, who beat Missouri two games to one last weekend.
Regardless of what Tuesday holds, however, Harris is just happy that his team is back in the postseason, even with a face full of sour cream afterward.
“It was exactly what we needed, right on time,” Harris said. “We get another week at least with our boys, which is nice. People always tell us to take advantage of the time you have with your teammates and build memories, and this will be one for me that I’ll remember forever.”