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Missouri baseball: Previewing weekend series against Kentucky

With the Wildcats coming into town, here are some key stories to keep track of as the Tigers look to build on their recent SEC performances.

Missouri (20-10-1, 3-5-1 SEC), currently on a two-game winning streak, will play host to Kentucky (16-13, 1-8 SEC), who’s lost two straight and three of four.

The Tigers found themselves in D1 Baseball’s projected field of 64 earlier this week thanks in part to having the nation’s No. 27 RPI, and they’ll be looking to impress the committee with a strong showing against the Wildcats.

Before the series begins, though, let’s take a look at some stories to watch this weekend.

Both teams seek to knock off unranked opponents

Neither Missouri nor Kentucky has had an easy start to SEC play.

Both teams faced ranked teams in each of its first three conference series, and neither came out in a great spot. The Tigers have a 3-5-1 conference record after strong performances against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, placing them fourth in the SEC East, while the Wildcats slumped to a 1-8 record and sit dead-last in the entire SEC.

This weekend, we’ll see two teams who are hungry to prove themselves in their first opportunity to play an unranked SEC team.

Missouri comes in powered by one of the country’s elite staffs at limiting runs, ranking eighth in the nation in team ERA (2.81), and the team’s projected starters (Jacob Cantleberry, Tyler LaPlante and T.J. Sikkema) all have sub-3.00 ERAs.

The Tigers’ lineup is bolstered by a slew of emerging and established hitters, namely batting average and RBI leader Chris Cornelius (.342 and 30) and home runs, walks and runs leader Kameron Misner (7, 36 and 32). While Misner’s struggles the past couple of weeks have already been documented, he’s a prime bounce-back candidate after a two-hit, three-walk day against Kansas State on Wednesday.

That’s not to say Kentucky won’t be motivated as well, though.

Only the teams with the 12 best SEC records make the postseason conference tournament, and at the moment, the Wildcats sit at the bottom of the barrel. They are just a game out from that No. 12 spot, so they’ll be looking to claw their way up the standings this weekend.

Leading that charge will be Kentucky’s ace Zach Thompson (more on him later), who is slated to pitch Saturday. The lineup is anchored by Ryan Shinn, who owns a .305/.422/.629 slash line and is tied for first with seven homers.

The Wildcats don’t offer too much more on the bump or at the plate, so this will be a great opportunity for Missouri to get back above .500 in SEC play.

Wildcats’ Thompson could be stiffest test yet

Kentucky ace Zach Thompson earned a number of preseason honors.

First-Team Coaches Preseason All-SEC. USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Watch List. Perfect Game Preseason All-SEC. Baseball America’s No. 1 2019 Draft SEC Prospect.

You name the honor, he was probably in consideration, and for good reason.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Thompson currently sports a 2-0 record and a 2.08 earned run average, and he’s compiled 68 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 43.2 innings pitched. Thompson is also coming off his best performance of the year, a two-hit, 13 K shutout of Georgia, which earned him National Pitcher of the Week honors by the National College Baseball Writers Association and Perfect Game.

Thompson is one of the top arms in college baseball, and he’s essentially a lock for the first round in this June’s MLB Draft.

Although the Wildcats overall will provide less of a challenge than what Missouri has seen recently, Saturday’s matchup against Thompson will be a solid indicator of what the Tigers can do against top-tier pitching.

Who could break out next?

This season, we’ve already seen a number of Tigers break out, if only for a couple games at a time.

Cantleberry has been a revelation on the bump on Friday nights. Cornelius is the team’s most consistent hitter. Even Austin James, who went into Wednesday with the team’s lowest average, pulled out a 3-for-4 day with four runs, six RBI and a home run.

So, who will be the next Tiger to emerge?

Tommy Springer has quietly put together a solid start to his freshman campaign, sporting a 2-0 record, a 2.55 ERA and recording 24 Ks in 17.2 innings. Ian Bedell has also been a steady presence out of the pen with a 1.37 ERA and just two walks in 19.2 innings.

At the plate, Paul Gomez has been dominant in SEC play, hitting at a .435 clip with a long ball, three doubles and four RBI in nine conference games. Though not hitting as well in SEC play, Mark Vierling has transitioned to the sixth-spot in the order nicely, hitting .296 and driving in 19 runs on the year.

Don’t be surprised if any of these guys put up big numbers this weekend.