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Mizzou Baseball Builds Momentum Heading into SEC Play

For the first time this season the Tigers won a series and are now winners of 4 of their last 5

Twitter: @MizzouBaseball

Coming off a weekend in which they dropped all four games they played in Frisco, the Missouri Tigers were in desperate need of a season revival, and they did just that this week.

Game Recaps

On Wednesday night, the Tigers took a trip down I-70 to take on a reeling SLU team. What ensued was an absolute pitchers duel. Lukas Veinburgs stayed hot from his start last week and gave Mizzou 5.2 innings of one-run ball before handing the ball to freshman reliever Ian Lohse, who continued to pitch well. Lohse came in and shut out the Billikens over the final 3.1 innings as the Tigers were able to steal the game-winning run on a wild pitch to win 2-1.

For the weekend series, the Tigers crossed the state line to battle it out with an Illinois State team with strong pitching, but not a lot to show for it. In the series opener, that strong pitching was on full display. No team scored a run until the ninth inning when Mizzou tallied 7 runs, but for 8 innings, Spencer Miles and Colton Johnson stifled opposing hitters. Miles has been Mizzou’s Friday night starter in each weekend series this year, and the Columbia native delivered his best performance this weekend with 7 shutout innings on the bump. Johnson, who we mentioned last week has been absolutely dealing this year, continued his impressive start to the year by going 8 strong and fanning 12 Tigers along the way. When ISU ran into trouble was when they turned to their bullpen in the ninth. Thanks to their ninth-inning explosion, the Tigers were able to secure the 7-0 victory against the Redbirds' best arm.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Redbirds are deep on the mound and Jordan Lussier wanted to pick right up where Colton Johnson left off. Because Saturday featured a day/night doubleheader, the two teams only played 7 innings, and in the first game of the day, Lussier absolutely silenced Mizzou bats. The Tigers scored just one run and were able to hit safely 4 times. The Redbirds on the other hand came out swinging it as two fourth innings homers propelled them to 10 runs and an easy victory.

In the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader, a switch flipped for the Tigers and their bats got hot. Behind 3 hits each from Brandt Belk and Mark Vierling, the Tigers tallied 12 runs by the 5th inning before the Redbirds even plated one. The arm of Seth Halvorsen shut down the Illinois State offense as they were held scoreless in each of Halvorsen’s 5 innings. Despite allowing just 2 hits, Halvorsen did walk 6 batters, but pitched around the trouble spectacularly.

While pitching had been the story of the first three games, the offense of both teams was the story as Mizzou aimed to capture their first series win of the season on Sunday. The Tiger bats woke up early on Sunday to hammer the ISU starter for 4 ER in just 1+ innings of work. One of those runs came in the form of a massive Luke Mann HR, which is quickly becoming the most exciting way the Tigers can score this season. Mann doesn’t get cheated on any of his swings, and boy can he hit the ball a long way. The Tigers continued to score following that mammoth HR, but Illinois St did not go quietly cutting the lead to just 9-7 in the 7th inning. However, in the ninth Mark Vierling and Josh Day were able to add 3 crucial insurance runs, and an exceptional 3 inning 0 ER performance out of the pen did just the job for the Tigers to polish off a series victory.

Pitching is Key and We Saw That This week

Coming into this week, the Tiger pitching staff had held an opponent under two runs just once this season, this week they did it three times.

In the SEC, you’ve got hurlers like Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker you have to face night in night out, and for the first time all year, the Tigers looked like they had the arms to give themselves a fighting chance against the gauntlet of a conference slate they will be subjected to very soon.

Lukas Veinbergs has cemented himself as the midweek starter with back-to-back dominant starts. He did have a suspect relief appearance on Sunday, but he looks like he’s carved out a spot in Steve Bieser’s rotation.

Spencer Miles looked like a bonafide ace this weekend. To go blow for blow with a pitcher who shut down a high-powered Oklahoma State offense just a couple of weeks ago was incredibly impressive. For him, it will always be about consistency. In his four starts this year, he’s been hit hard twice and pitched a shutout in the other two. If Miles can pitch consistently, he has the stuff to give the Tigers great Friday night starts every series.

Perhaps the most exciting pitcher on this staff isn’t Miles or Veinbergs, however, it’s freshman Ian Lohse. While he doesn’t throw incredibly hard, the crafty lefty pitched 6.1 innings this week and punched out 9 hitters over those six frames. He was hit hard by Dallas Baptist in Frisco, but the young arm looks like he has potential to be a great weapon for Bieser out of the pen. If he can cut down on his walks (6 BB/9), he will likely become the Tigers' best bullpen arm and maybe even get a shot to pitch in the weekend rotation.

The pitching staff hadn’t looked great this year, but this week served as a glimmer of hope about what this staff could become. With conference play starting this week, they’ll need to keep the momentum from this week rolling, but the good news for Tigers fans is they’ve shown they’re capable. Now it’s just about doing it against elite competition. With Vandy two weeks away and Kentucky this week, the competition just stepped up big time, and it’s time to see if the 2021 Tigers can hang with the big boys.

Standout Performers of the Weekend

Since we showed the pitchers a lot of love in the last section, it’s only fair to talk about the damage the Tiger bats did this weekend.

Mark Vierling, AKA Mr. Reliable, was back for the Tigers in the weekend series against Illinois State. Vierling hit an astonishing 7-16 in the series. While he didn’t have any extra-base hits, he added 2 RBI and scored 4 runs, excelling as the table-setter for a previously cold Mizzou offense.

Brandt Belk — The RS Senior showed Tigers fans the same Brandt Belk they saw in 2020 this week. Belk hit 10-19 this week, and including the midweek game, he had 3 multi-hit games. He now has the highest AVG on the team at .348, and considering he finished the weekend with back-to-back 3-hit games, you can expect that number might rise even higher.

If Belk and Vierling can maintain production like they had this week, that will be the key to the Tigers maintaining the offensive numbers of this week. If the two hitters atop your lineup can hit close to .500 between them, that sets the table perfectly for your middle-of-the-order guys.

Looking Forward

There’s no midweek game for the Tigers this week, but I’m sure that’s not a problem for the Tigers because they have to go to Lexington on the weekend. The Wildcats currently are 11-2 on the season, and they are coming off a series sweep of a Georgia State team that took a game from Vanderbilt earlier in the season. Translation, these Wildcats are a very formidable foe.

Currently, the Wildcats sit atop the SEC rankings in ERA and third in BAA. In their 13 games this year, they haven’t surrendered more than 5 runs a single time. Scoring even a run them will take the Tigers being on their A-game. With a staff ERA of 1.99 (yes you read that right, it’s mind-bogglingly low) and a 0.97 WHIP, you can expect some pitcher’s duels this weekend if the Tigers are going to go into Lexington and win the series.

In the Kentucky rotation, look out for Cole Stupp and Mason Hazelwood, they’ve anchored Friday and Saturday for the Wildcats. However, the Kentucky bullpen might be even better, so you can’t bank on getting them out of the game early.

The success of the pitching rotation in Lexington has been unexpected, but what they did expect this season was to be able to hit the baseball and hit it hard. Currently, the Wildcats are hitting .303 as a team, and that was expected from this group. They don’t hit the ball out of the ballpark all that often, but they spray it around and kill opposing pitchers with a barrage of gap-to-gap hitting.

The Wildcats are led by Junior CF Aaron Schultz atop their lineup who is currently hitting .400 with a 1.052 OPS. However, if you think those numbers are insane you should see Freshman sensation Reuben Church’s. The dude is currently hitting .472 with a 1.345 OPS, yea those are video game numbers if I’ve ever seen them. However, where the Wildcats do the bulk of driving their runs in comes from their dynamic 3-4 combo in the middle of their lineup. LF John Rhoades hits third and has 3 bombs this year and has driven in 12 more, while cleanup hitter TJ Collet has 4 HRs and 16 RBI. I mean who do you pitch to? Did I mention Collet drove in 8 of those runs and hit three of those dingers last weekend? The baseball has to look like a beach ball to him right now.

Without a doubt, this will be Mizzou’s toughest opponent yet. They might not be ranked like Arizona, but this Kentucky team is complete from top to bottom. If the Tigers can go into Lexington and give the Wildcats a run for their money, they might just be able to make something of a season that looked far from promising a week ago.