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Missouri loses first SEC Tournament game, now awaits NCAA fate

A three-run seventh for South Carolina may have ruined the Tigers’ chances at earning an NCAA regional bid.

Missed opportunities hurt.

In every inning from the fifth through the eighth Tuesday against South Carolina, Missouri put a runner in scoring position, only to see him stranded on base.

Fly outs, double plays and strikeouts all took turns ending the Tigers’ rallies, and so it went that the Gamecocks used a three-run seventh to eliminate Missouri from the SEC tournament and perhaps from NCAA tournament contention with a 4-2 first round victory in Hoover, Alabama.

Missouri revealed its lineup for the matchup just before first pitch, yet the card looked different.

Brian Sharp had led off every game since May 3 vs. Georgia, and had led off every game in which he has started since April 20 vs. Vanderbilt. However, Missouri coach Steve Bieser decided to bat him third to face the Gamecocks.

Although it would prove critical to have the steady bat Sharp provides in the heart of the order, the success he has had in the lead-off spot as of late could have jumpstarted early offense for the Tigers.

Instead, South Carolina’s Carmen Mlodzinksi dominated Missouri the first time through the order. The Tigers went nine up, nine down in the first three innings, with five batters recording strike outs.

Meanwhile, T.J. Sikkema did his job in keeping the Gamecocks off the board.

Sikkema matched Mlodzinski with a 1-2-3 first and third, and generated a double play to get out of a jam with two men on in the second.

While they couldn’t do much against Mlodzinski in any of their first at-bats, Missouri’s hitters were at least able to get a good look at the righty on the mound.

This would prove to be huge, as the Tigers flipped a switch in the fourth en route to a big inning. Connor Brumfield and Trey Harris both singled to start and advanced on a wild pitch, and Sharp grounded out to first to give the Missouri the lead. Zach Hanna then took a walk before Chad McDaniel singled to drive in Harris, giving Sikkema a two-run cushion.

In the fifth, though, Sikkema’s fortunes came to an end.

The southpaw gave up a double, a single and another double in succession, allowing a run while putting runners on second and third. To counter what looked to be a game-changing inning for South Carolina, Bieser brought the experienced Andy Toelken out of the pen.

The senior validated Bieser’s decision, recording two strikeouts and inducing a fly out from Madison Stokes to escape the jam.

Toelken pitched a 1-2-3 sixth as well, but just like Sikkema two innings earlier, he couldn’t keep the Gamecocks at bay.

South Carolina loaded the bases with one out in the seventh for Carlos Cortes, who walked to tie the score. Stokes then hit a sac-fly to left to give the Gamecocks the lead, and Jonah Bride singled to left to bring in another and extend the lead to two.

Bryce Montes de Oca came on in relief, giving up a walk to load the bases before getting a fly out to finally get the Tigers out of the inning.

The blow would end up being fatal, though, as Missouri wasted a one-out double from Sharp in the eighth before Matt Berler grounded into a double play in the ninth to end the Tigers’ run in the SEC tournament.

Now, Missouri will have to sit back and hope its resume is strong enough to warrant a spot in the NCAA tournament field of 64. The selection show will air Monday at 11 p.m. (CT) on ESPNU, and you can bet that the Tigers especially the seniors will be watching very closely.