— Gamecock Baseball (@GamecockBasebll) May 23, 2017
HOOVER, Ala.—The focus Tuesday on the opening day of the Southeastern Conference Tournament was on a pair of teammates from last year’s USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. South Carolina righthander Tyler Johnson and Missouri righthander Tanner Houck both took the mound at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium for critical outings, both for their team’s NCAA Tournament hopes and their own draft prospects.
Both South Carolina and Missouri got the wins they needed in their play-in games Tuesday to extend their stay in Hoover and give them a chance to play their way into regionals with a deep run this week. South Carolina defeated Vanderbilt, 7-4, in 11 innings, and Missouri beat Texas A&M, 12-7.
Johnson and Houck, however, had quite different days on the mound. Johnson struck out eight batters in 4.1 scoreless innings against Vanderbilt, flashing his significant potential. Houck also threw 4.1 innings, but gave up seven runs (six earned) on six hits, three walks and three hit batters as he struggled with control.
Missouri coach Steve Bieser said Houck never was able to get a feel for his pitches Tuesday. But even as Houck struggled to throw strikes, Bieser said it wasn’t easy to make the move to the bullpen.
“Taking him out in the fifth inning was hard for me because I knew he had still had some pitches left,” Bieser said. “You just keep thinking he’s going to find it, but he just didn’t seem to be able to find it.”
Houck sat in the low 90s with his fastball, but was unable to locate the pitch consistently and was often forced to pitch backwards. When he’s at his best, he can throw his above-average slider for strikes, but he struggled to do that as well Tuesday.
“When I think Tanner’s really, really, really good for us, he’s seemed to have his secondary stuff coming out in the first inning,” Bieser said. “He just didn’t have a great feel for his slider. I think that the tone was set on the very first batter of the game. He threw three straight changeups, which I consider his third-best pitch. That just wasn’t a good sequence for him.”
The Tigers able to hit enough to overcome Houck’s poor start and Andy Toelken threw the final 4.2 innings to pick up the victory. Missouri (36-21) advanced to the double-elimination portion of the tournament and will play Louisiana State on Wednesday. The victory was Missouri’s 15th against SEC opponents this season, but its RPI is No. 48, leaving the Tigers with more work to do this week to improve their NCAA Tournament resume.
Missouri skipped Houck’s turn in the rotation last weekend at Tennessee to set him up to pitch its SEC Tournament opener.
“We knew we had to make a run down the stretch here and win a lot of games,” Bieser said. “We have to get Tanner his rest when he throws on the weekend and didn’t want Tanner not on that mound to throw in the conference tournament in his last season in a Missouri uniform.”
If Missouri is not able to continue its run in the SEC Tournament, Tuesday will likely be Houck’s final start for the Tigers. He is 4-7, 3.33 with 95 strikeouts and 24 walks in 94.2 innings this spring and still projects as a high draft pick.
Johnson, however, put his best foot forward Tuesday. He entered the game with two outs in the seventh inning a runner on first and all-SEC center fielder Jeren Kendall at the plate. Johnson blew three fastballs by Kendall to end the inning.
Johnson followed that with four scoreless innings, limiting the Commodores to one hit and one walk. He filled up the strike zone with his 96-98 mph fastball in a performance that was reminiscent of his start in last year’s regional final against UNC Wilmington.
Johnson’s outing was perhaps his best since beating UNCW last June. He came into the tournament 0-2, 2.95 with nine saves this season, but had been up-and-down all season. He missed more than a month in the first half of the year due to arm soreness and hadn’t been at his best since he returned to the mound.
That changed Tuesday, when Johnson found his vintage form.
“I wasn’t trying to throw my hardest,” Johnson said. “I was just trying to stay within myself. Clearly, I need to do that more often.”
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said Johnson was the difference in the game.
“He really didn’t give us much of a chance,” Corbin said. “We swung through some balls against him. He was just an aggressor and you have to give the kid credit.”
South Carolina’s victory snapped its eight-game losing streak in the SEC Tournament. It was a strong start, but the Gamecocks (33-23) will need to keep winning in Hoover to reach regionals after finishing 11th in the SEC at 13-17.
Coach Chad Holbrook said he “couldn’t be prouder” of the Gamecocks, who play Kentucky on Wednesday.
“They have had a lot thrown on top of them at a lot of different points this season. They knew coming in here that our backs were against the wall. They played their tails off.”