Missouri baseball had an underwhelming start to the season during the team’s opening trip in Florida, going 4-4 and dropping its opening series to North Florida. The Tigers did end the trip with back-to-back wins over Rhode Island — including a 7-0 shutout to cap off the trip Sunday — giving some hope for the team’s chances at making it back to the NCAA tournament (provided MU’s appeal to the NCAA goes according to plan).
With Missouri set to host Alabama A&M in its home opener at 4 p.m. Tuesday, here are some observations from the Tigers’ showing in the Sunshine State.
Misner is as good as advertised
While it’s still unclear whether Kameron Misner’s primary position will be at first base or in the outfield, it’s become clear as day what Missouri will be getting from the junior phenom: a five-tool player capable of being the star for a team in search of breakout performers.
Misner’s season-ending foot injury at the start of SEC play last year threw a wrench in the Tigers’ plans of making it to the postseason, and they ultimately made the SEC tournament as the final seed but missed the NCAA tournament all together.
This season, Misner has shown what the Tigers sorely missed in 2018.
Misner is one of Missouri’s leaders in almost every offensive statistic, and he paces the team in runs (7), walks (9), home runs (2, T-1st), RBI (7, T-1st) and stolen bases (5, T-1st). He also owns a 1.000 fielding percentage, giving the Tigers solid production both in the field and at the plate.
While head coach Steve Bieser spends the rest of pre-SEC play looking to shore up his lineup, Misner will give him a steady presence at the helm.
New leaders are forced to step up
Missouri barely snuck into the SEC tournament in 2018 on the backs of older stars once Misner went down, but now, most of those older stars have moved on.
Gone are senior cornerstones Trey Harris and Brett Bond, and junior hurlers Michael Plassmeyer and Bryce Montes de Oca and two-way workhorse Brian Sharp took their talents to the majors a year early. In their place, a new group of players must take on those roles.
Misner and southpaw T.J. Sikkema were considered the top non-draft eligible players on the roster last season, and they’ll now be the Tigers top options at the plate and on the mound, respectively. Bieser needs other players to step into the spotlight in 2019, though, and so far, some have started to come into their own.
Shortstop Chris Cornelius has taken the biggest jump to start the season. Along with Misner, Cornelius is the name seen at the top of most offensive categories, leading Missouri with 14 hits, three doubles, 23 total bases and a .438 batting average.
On the mound, Jacob Cantleberry, a transfer from San Jacinto Community College, has proven to be quite the pickup for Bieser and his staff.
The junior lefty took advantage of back-to-back weekend starts to put his name fully in the conversation for the primary rotation, giving up just nine hits and no runs through 12 innings while ringing up 20 different batters. Cantleberry started on the bump in Missouri’s best win of the season, a 7-0 victory over Rhode Island on Sunday, in which he struck out 10 and walked just one through six quality innings.
It will take more than Cornelius and Cantleberry to get the Tigers where they want to go, but with over two weeks remaining until the team’s first conference game against Arkansas, Missouri will take what it can get.
Late inning meltdowns are becoming a common occurrence
In each of Missouri’s four losses, the bullpen either couldn’t hold a lead or couldn’t keep the game tied, dooming the Tigers to a .500 record.
In the season opener, runs for North Florida in the seventh and eighth put the game out of reach in a 5-4 loss. Two days later, a four-run seventh for the Ospreys wasted a quality start from Cantleberry and dropped the Tigers to 1-2. Things didn’t get much better over the next week, as four-run eighth innings for Northeastern and Rhode Island in back-to-back days also led to losses for Missouri.
Holding leads wasn’t even much easier in the games the Tigers managed to win, as Missouri’s bullpen allowed three runs in the ninth to Florida A&M and four runs over the the sixth and seventh in game two against the Rams but managed to hold on long enough for the victories.
Six different pitchers currently have an ERA over 4.90 out of the bullpen, so Bieser may need to consider making some changes to his late-game approach.