Three Strikes: Mizzou’s Arizona Trip, Nonconference Performance, Miles Simington’s Hot Start
Mizzou’s Impromptu Arizona Trip
The stage was set last weekend for a fun series in Columbia, Mo., with Gonzaga set to play four games on the road against Missouri.
The Tigers, after handling mostly overmatched competition throughout the first three weekends of the season, were going to get a shot to prove themselves against a ranked opponent as a final tuneup before SEC play. And the Zags would get a chance to continue to pile up quality road wins as it builds yet another at-large-quality resume.
But as she so often does at this time of year in college baseball, Mother Nature had other ideas.
Snow was forecasted for the weekend in Columbia, and the high temperatures on the days of the first three games of the series were going to just barely get over the freezing line, if they did so at all. Anyone who has lived in a cold weather city and has watched snow linger for days can tell you that’s a bad combination.
“I think the biggest component of that was the fact of how cold it was going to be on that weekend,” Missouri coach Steve Bieser said. “We knew we were getting snow, but obviously you can’t guess how much snow you’re getting, but we knew that if we got any snow at all that as cold as it was, it was going to stick around. It was going to be really hard to get off the field.
“We started looking at it probably Tuesday and realized the best opportunity to play is Wednesday, so (Gonzaga coach) Mark (Machtolf) and I talked and thought let’s try to get the Wednesday game in because they were traveling from Oklahoma State, and then we would kind of play it by ear, and I think as we saw the Wednesday weather predicted for the weekend, we realized this was going to be really tough and both of us were really kind of (thinking) we need to kind of keep our rotation going here early (and) hate to miss the whole weekend. So we got together and decided the best avenue would be for both of us to look for an opponent to go somewhere where we could play.”
As Bieser alluded to, the teams made the best of it. They played each other on Wednesday in Columbia, a game Gonzaga won 10-5 in come-from-behind fashion.
From there, the Zags headed to Southern California, where they played Long Beach State, which had its series on the road against Nebraska canceled for weather reasons as well. Missouri, meanwhile, had to get a bit more outside the box, especially when it’s not as if the weather in most of the rest of the country was any more promising.
“Arizona State was one of the last calls,” Bieser said. “I think we called every game that was going on, pretty much, that was in decent weather, and it was tough because Florida was dealing with the rain and nobody wanted to add another team there because they were going to have a hard enough time getting their games in. So (Phoenix) looked like the ideal location, and fortunately, Willie (Bloomquist) there at Arizona State was all in, same with San Francisco, and they allowed us to pop in there and play a couple games, which obviously worked out well.”
Just getting games in was the big-picture goal, but Missouri took it a step further and went out and picked up a couple of wins in a tough situation where it would have been easy for the team to come out flat.
On Saturday, it scored a 4-1 win behind a strong, 12-strikeout performance from its pitching staff, and on Sunday night, it collected a 6-4 win over Arizona State after taking a late lead in what was a tight game through the middle innings.
It made for another successful weekend in what has been a month full of them for Missouri, which is 12-2 on the season after a midweek win at home against Saint Louis, no small feat, either, considering the quick turnaround to play after the team rolled into Columbia at 6:30 a.m. Monday morning from a red-eye flight out of Phoenix.
“The team chemistry is really good,” Bieser said. “That’s something I think we struggled with last year. The Covid numbers, I think, really hurt us last year. We kept more than what most people kept, and as you’re trying to make everybody happy, that’s impossible. It’s impossible with a 35-man roster, much less the 50-plus that we had the year before. So, kind of eliminating and (we’re) getting down to some reasonable numbers where everybody feels like they’ve got a role, and then (are) guys buying into that role and fulfilling that role and just doing their job.”
As anticipated, first baseman Torin Montgomery (.400/.475/.533) has been a standout in the middle of the order, but sophomore outfielder Ross Lovich (.392/.466/.569) is also off to a hot start, and fourth-year junior shortstop Josh Day (.364/.478/.673), who leads the team with four home runs, looks ready to make a big leap into stardom in the SEC.
Last season, he was off to a very strong start, but his numbers suffered down the stretch as he played through a fractured hamate bone. Now healthy again, he’s playing extremely well.
“He’s a guy that’s been under the radar, and I’ve felt for a long time like he’s one of the best shortstops in the league, and I think he’s still growing,” Bieser said.
Pitching, which has long been Missouri’s bread and butter, has been solid as well, and things stand to get even better as that unit continues to get healthy.
Righthander Spencer Miles (2-0, 1.88) didn’t pitch last weekend in Arizona so that Missouri could keep him on a Friday to Friday schedule rather than sliding him from Friday to Saturday and back to Friday as he continues to build up his strength after a setback in the preseason. When he’s at full strength, he gives the Tigers a Friday guy who can keep the team competitive each time out.
RighthanderAustin Marozas (3.60 ERA, 5 IP) is similarly being built back up. He didn’t get on the mound at all until March 6 and was on a pitch count of 50 last weekend against Arizona State, but because he was so efficient, that ended up getting him through four innings.
Lefthander Ian Lohse, with three runs allowed and five walks in 2.2 innings so far, doesn’t have the prettiest numbers, but Bieser is very excited about the way he’s throwing the ball just 10 months removed from Tommy John surgery and expects that he’ll have a big role moving forward.
Righthander Austin Troesser (3-0, 2.45) and freshman lefthander Tony Neubeck (2.79 ERA, 9.2 IP), the latter of whom Bieser describes as the biggest surprise of the season so far, have also been important pieces for a Missouri pitching staff that will clearly have roles to sort out once it’s at full strength. That’s a good problem to have, though, as Missouri is in a place where it has depth of SEC-caliber arms that it hasn’t always had in the past.
The quality of competition will jump this weekend, as Missouri heads to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt, and although it’s a relief for any opposing coach in the SEC to not see the names of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter on the probable starters list ahead of a series against the Commodores, Bieser isn’t prepared for it to be any easier.
“They’re always good on the mound. Again this year, it looks like it’s extremely hard to hit and score runs on the Vanderbilt staff, which we expect,” Bieser said. “We know it’s going to be a tough weekend, but we do feel like we’re in pretty good shape and we feel pretty good about where we’re at right now.”
Non-Conference Performance of Potential Multi-Bid Conferences
As we sit in mid-March, conference play has either just begun or will get underway in the next few weeks for most of college baseball. Of the top conferences in the country, the ACC and Pac-12 began conference games last weekend, and the SEC will get going this weekend, with the Big 12 still a couple of weeks away from having full slates of league games.
With that in mind, it’s a good time to compare and take stock of what the top conferences have done so far in nonconference play. We did this exercise before in this space early in 2020, which you can read here.
Looking at nonconference records can give you some hints about how things might play out once we get to the business end of the season.
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In the true power leagues like the SEC, conference performance is going to be the biggest factor in a team’s postseason resume, but how it did out of conference can be a differentiating factor in whether a team is a top-eight national seed or just a host or perhaps the difference in being a host or a two seed. And in non-power leagues, how well teams take care of business in nonconference play can be the difference between being a one-bid league or a multi-bid league.
Here are the combined nonconference records for the Power Five conferences (to borrow the term from football), plus the American, Big West, Conference USA, Missouri Valley and West Coast Conference, all of which look like strong contenders to put multiple teams into regionals in 2022.
NOTE: Records are for games through 3/15/2022
It’s important to acknowledge what this data table can’t show you. It doesn’t account for strength of schedule, although perhaps that evens out as some teams in a conference have gone through a gauntlet and others have taken care of light work thus far.
The data also doesn’t take into account home vs. road split, and that’s a particularly pertinent piece of information in a sport that begins its season in winter. Teams in the Big Ten and MVC (save for Dallas Baptist), for example, have played mostly or entirely on the road. That’s reflected in both of those leagues being just a shade over .500 overall in nonconference games so far, but the sheer volume of road games is likely to be of great benefit in the RPI later in the season.
But beyond that, there is other information to be gleaned.
It’s no real surprise to see the ACC and SEC at the top of the table, but it is perhaps a mild surprise to see the ACC ahead of the SEC by a percentage point. The likes of Virginia, Notre Dame, Clemson and North Carolina all having two or fewer nonconference losses certainly helps, and the SEC also having played one additional nonconference weekend might be a factor.
Conference USA finding itself where it does should probably be seen as good news for the overall strength of the league, especially when you consider that it has 12 members, a good number of which aren’t considered real threats to make the postseason. But as we discussed last week in this space, that cuts both ways. It likely makes the league better as a whole, but does it mean that teams will beat up on each other more and hurt C-USA’s chances for additional at-large bids?
Once again, the West Coast Conference is off to a strong start, and it again looks like a league that could very well put multiple teams into regionals, but it often looks that way, and more often than not, it ends up being a one-bid league. Gonzaga has certainly put together the resume so far, but can anyone else join it?
The Big West comes up last among these 10 conferences, and there are a couple of ways to look at that.
If you want the positive spin, you can say that the overall record is being weighted down by a combination of teams like Cal State Northridge, Long Beach State, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara having played difficult schedules and UC Riverside and UC Davis struggling to a combined 1-19 record so far.
The other side of that coin, though, is that those teams that have scored significant wins will have to continue to build an at-large resume in a Big West that right now has just three teams—UCSB, CSUN and UCI—with records above .500. That’s not really a recipe for conference wins to be RPI-boosting victories.
Ultimately, this is just a snapshot in time of how each league is performing, but there is roughly three-quarters of a season left, and it will be interesting to see which leagues ultimately see a fundamental change in outlook from what this data shows.
South Alabama’s Miles Simington Swinging a Hot Bat
South Alabama outfielder Miles Simington was far from a mystery man going into this season. He was coming off of a career year at Purdue that saw him hit .322/.431/.493, and he was ranked No. 79 on Baseball America’s list of the top 100 transfers in the country entering 2022.
But the way he’s performed so far for the Jaguars has easily exceeded any reasonable expectation for his performance as a grad transfer.
Having played in 13 of South Alabama’s 15 games, he’s hitting .473/.500/.673. He has a hit in every game he’s played this season, has eight multi-hit games and has had a four-hit game twice already.
He’s also clearly up there looking to swing the bat. His six strikeouts give him one of the lowest strikeout rates of any regular in the lineup. That tracks with his results at Purdue, where he struck out just 20 times last season in more than 180 plate appearances. But he’s also drawn just two walks so far. He walked more than he struck out last season, so expect the walk rate to increase as the season goes on, but who can blame him for being so aggressive at the plate when he’s having the kind of success he’s had?
In the bigger picture, his emergence is a great sign for a South Alabama team that had questions to answer offensively as it entered 2022.
The Jags’ offense last season was inconsistent, ultimately hitting .244/.345/.378, and that was with the presence of 49th overall pick Ethan Wilson in the lineup. Without Wilson, to say nothing of the departure of dynamic outfielder Michael Sandle, a 10th-round pick, it was tough to know where to set expectations for a rebuilt lineup.
The ultimate test will come in Sun Belt play once the book is fully out on everyone, but as it stands now, early returns are good for a lineup hitting .285/.373/.425 as a team.
Simington is obviously playing a big role in that, but so are freshman outfielder Will Turner (.333/.397/.433), sixth-year senior first baseman Hunter Stokes (.328/.388/.443), fourth-year junior shortstop Santi Montiel (.323/.391/.565) and Pacific grad transfer outfielder Charles Middleton Jr. (.304/.420/.518).
There isn’t a superstar in the middle of the order like Wilson provided the last few seasons, but South Alabama is getting something from a lot of different hitters right now, and perhaps Simington is on the way to putting up superstar-like numbers for a team that’s off to a 12-3 start and looks ready to compete for a Sun Belt title once again.