Just 15 days before Opening Day, Missouri got some tough news.
After an academic misconduct investigation, the NCAA levied sanctions onto the baseball, football and softball programs at the university. All three programs received one-year postseason bans. Suddenly, the opportunity to see a payoff from everything this particular team had been working for during the summer, fall and in preseason practice was taken away. You choose to play college baseball, especially in the SEC, to have a chance to play in the College World Series, and now, that just wasn’t going to be possible for this group.
“You work all fall and you do all this stuff in season preparation, and then you get to the season and it’s kind of taken away from you,” outfielder Kameron Misner said.
Early in the season, the news seemed to hang over the Tigers, as they played a little like, well, a team that had its season’s goals taken off the table at the last minute. They began the season with a series loss at North Florida. That next week, they dropped a midweek game to Northeastern, and the following weekend, they lost the opener of their series against Rhode Island, dropping their record to 2-4.
After that series-opening loss to URI, Missouri coach Steve Bieser admitted that his team was struggling mentally.
“Our guys are feeling pretty down and feeling like they just can’t do anything right,” he said at the time.
As much as the losses themselves, it was the teams to which they were losing to that suggested Missouri had come out a little bit flat. Lots of teams get off to slow starts, but North Florida, Northeastern and Rhode Island are not projected regional teams and the Tigers expected to win most of those games.
As he reflects on that early stretch of games, Bieser is open about the impact the news of the sanctions had on the team.
“I think it had an effect. I think we’re a better team than what we started the season off,” Bieser said. “We were competing in every game, but it was just that little bit extra edge that maybe we thought we had but we didn’t have, and I think it took some time for us to shake that.”
Since then, there’s been good news for the program both on and off the field.
Off the field, the school has officially appealed the decision. In the long term, the school’s athletic administration is confident that it has a case for the sanctions to be peeled back. But in the short term, the baseball program will be eligible for the postseason as long as the ruling on the appeal is still pending. With an expectation that it will take until after the College World Series for that ruling to be made, the Tigers have to be considered postseason eligible this year.
Of course, being eligible does you no good if you don’t win enough games to get there, and that’s the other place where things are looking up for the Tigers.
Missouri has turned it around and sits at 23-11-1 overall. It stumbled at Arkansas in its first SEC series and got swept in three close games, but since then, it has won a series against Mississippi, split two games and tied in another at Texas A&M and won a series against Kentucky.
Having success in those three series was crucial because the road in front of the Tigers is treacherous.
Still to come are series with national title contenders Louisiana State, Georgia and Vanderbilt, plus Tennessee, which can pitch as well as any in the conference, and Florida, which is struggling now but could well be rolling by the time it comes to Columbia for the final weekend of the regular season. In only one series the rest of the way, a home set against South Carolina, does it feel like Missouri should be considered the prohibitive favorite.
The downside there is obvious, as it would be very easy for the Tigers to play fairly well and still lose too many of those games to be an at-large team in the end.
The positive spin is just as stark, however. With that many tough games ahead, the metrics, most notably their RPI, which has been in the 20s over the last couple of weeks, will be in good shape if they pile up enough wins.
And Missouri has the talent to get it done, particularly on the mound.
An all-lefthanded rotation of Jacob Cantleberry, Tyler LaPlante and T.J. Sikkema, with ERAs of 2.62, 2.38, and 1.27, respectively, is a legitimate SEC rotation from front to back.
“I really like this rotation,” Bieser said. “It’s three lefthanders, and they all bring something different to the table. It’s not like you’re seeing the same guy day after day.”
There is depth in the bullpen as well, led by righties Jordan Gubelman, who has a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings, and Ian Bedell, whose 1.25 ERA in 21.2 innings is the best on the team. That’s to say nothing of righthanders Cameron Dulle, who has struck out 25 batters in 17.2 innings, and Konnor Ash, who has used his mid-90s fastball as a weapon to punch out 29 batters in 21.2 innings.
And as a staff, the Tigers have a 2.02 ERA in SEC play. That type of run prevention will get the job done more often than not.
“(In) most of our games, the park plays big and you better have some pitching and you better be able to defend to win consistently in this park, and I think that’s been our identity,” Bieser said.
Offensively, they are still a work in progress, but veteran shortstop Chris Cornelius has developed into a real catalyst in the order, DH Peter Zimmerman flashes incredible raw power and freshman outfielder Josh Holt Jr. has turned into a spark plug at the top of the order and is hitting .303/.413/.409, which has been a bit of a surprise, even to Bieser.
“All of the sudden, you insert a Josh Holt, who, when he showed up here on campus on day one, in your mind like, ‘This is a redshirt guy, it’s going to take a while,’” Bieser said. “(It’s) probably the most improvement I’ve seen in a player in my career.”
And while he’s scuffled early in SEC play this season, you have to expect Misner, a Preseason All-American, to get hot at some point, and when that happens, he has the talent necessary to carry an offense. He’s still finding ways to be productive, however, hitting .266/.459/.484 with eight home runs and 14 stolen bases.
With the tough row to hoe ahead of them, Missouri will be fighting for its postseason lives just about every weekend from here on out. But when you consider where the Tigers were a little more than two weeks before opening day, they have to be happy just to have something to fight for after all.