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Missouri baseball: Previewing weekend series with South Carolina

With the Gamecocks coming into town, now is the time for the Tigers to prove they are playoff-worthy.

Bouncing back after being swept by the top team in the Southeastern Conference is not an easy task, but that is exactly the challenge awaiting Missouri (27-15-1, 7-10-1 SEC) when it hosts South Carolina (24-17, 5-13 SEC) this weekend.

The Tigers currently sit fourth in the SEC East while the Gamecocks are sixth, so this is a must-win series as Missouri attempts to stake its claim for the postseason. And with two road series versus No. 20 Tennessee and No. 5 Vanderbilt (according to D1 Baseball) coming up, this is the Tigers’ best shot to get back to .500 in conference play.

With the weekend set kicking off at 6:30 p.m. Friday, here are stories to watch out for against South Carolina.

Missouri should take advantage of South Carolina’s weaknesses

The Tigers’ SEC record might not show it, but they’ve been playing some quietly solid baseball in conference play. Not a single one of their SEC losses has been by more than three runs, which has come as a result of a dominant pitching staff that’s posted a 2.64 ERA in 18 conference games.

Missouri’s hitting has not been as consistent, ranking 12th in the SEC in average (.219) and 13th in slugging percentage (.316) and on-base percentage (.301). But most of those struggles have come against superior SEC pitching staffs like Georgia and Texas A&M.

The Gamecocks don’t stack up with those teams on the bump.

South Carolina’s staff has posted bottom-tier numbers in conference play, sitting 11th in ERA (5.43), tied for 10th in opponents’ batting average (.266) and 13th in strikeouts (128). The Gamecocks don’t get any better at the plate, ranking last in average (.192) and on-base percentage (.289) and 12th in slugging percentage (.336).

If there’s one series the Tigers have left to get the lineup on track and keep the staff rolling, it’s this one.

Misner could be getting hot at the right time

Kameron Misner, Missouri’s golden boy and projected first-round draft pick, has had his share of unforeseen struggles this season. Misner was supposed to anchor the Tigers lineup and provide a steady presence in the heart of the order as the players around him began to settle into their new roles.

But that hasn’t been the case.

After an April 2 win over Saint Louis, Misner reached a new low, as his average fell to a season-worst .248 after an 0-for-3 performance against the Billikens. His OBP has remained steady (.453, seventh in the SEC) thanks to his 48 walks that currently rank second in the country, but up to the game against SLU, Misner had not been meeting expectations at the plate.

Since then, though, he’s started to figure things out.

Misner is hitting .341 (14-for-41) through his last 13 games, and he’s added four home runs and 10 RBI in that span. His average has risen to .273, which is the highest it’s been since it sat at .281 after a loss to Texas A&M on March 29. After a 2-for-4 night against Missouri State on Tuesday, head coach Steve Bieser seemed to believe Misner’s improvement at the plate was here to stay.

“It got to a point where (Misner) was looking for the wrong pitch every single time,” Bieser said after the win over the Bears. “What we had to do was send him up there with the safety off, ready to swing the bat. He’s a long guy. He can cover more than just the strike zone, and we want him to attack.”

If it is, in fact, here to stay, get ready for an interesting weekend for Misner.

LaPlante returns?

Missouri has been without its typical Sunday starter, Tyler LaPlante, the last few weeks as he’s dealt with a forearm injury, but after the win over Missouri State on Tuesday, Bieser said he expects LaPlante to be available this weekend.

That’s big news for the Tigers, who have put up a 1-1 Sunday record in his absence. LaPlante would complete the lefty trio Missouri has been throwing at SEC opponents this season, and he’d be bringing a 2.38 ERA, a .212 opponents’ average and 34 strikeouts with him.

As a senior leader and one of the top holdovers from the 2018 team, expect LaPlante to see limited but reliable action before Bieser goes to the pen Sunday.