Trio of pitchers hope summer success translates to regular season
COLUMBIA — The MU Baseball team has been good enough, for long enough, that coach Tim Jamieson knows the College World Series is a possibility each season.
The Tigers have appeared in the last five NCAA Tournaments and hosted a regional for the first time last season. The program has made a steady progression from obscurity to perennial postseason contenders has given this year’s team a quiet confidence.
“The difference between this year’s team and last year’s team is last year’s team talked about (getting to the College World Series) a lot. This year’s team it’s almost an expectation that they just don’t talk about,” said Jamieson. “I think that that’s again a progression over the last six seasons. Everything’s gotten a little bit better in certain ways each year, a little stronger.”
Last summer three MU pitchers spent their vacation getting a little better and stronger in New England.
Aaron Crow, Kyle Gibson and Rick Zagone all played in the vaunted Cape Cod Baseball League, where players use wooden bats and live with families who volunteer to house players each season. The league, which takes place in a string of small towns south of Boston, annually invites the best college baseball players to fill the rosters of its ten teams. According to the league’s own calculations there were 198 Cape Cod alumni playing in the major leagues and just over 1,000 in professional baseball.
“It’s tough everywhere you go,” said Zagone, who went 4-1 with a 2.09 ERA in 47 innings pitched, “but, like, throughout the order was every school’s big guy.”
Zagone’s teammates were even more dominant. Gibson, a sophomore, finished 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 46 innings. His ERA was bested only by Crow, who allowed just three earned runs in 40 innings worked for a miniscule 0.67 ERA.
Both played on the same team, the Falmouth Commodores, and Gibson soaked in his junior teammate’s success.
“Just watching him go out there every day, he dealt with hitters in a different way than I’ve ever seen anyone else do it,” said Gibson. “I mean he went out there and he basically said, ‘I’m better than you and here’s my best stuff and if you can’t hit it then try next time.’”
When asked about how he handled his high quality opponents, Crow mentioned the use of wooden bats by hitters in the old school league, which was founded in 1885. multiple times. Cheap hits, he said, were eliminated, and besides, “A lot of the guys I pitched against we played (because) they’re from Big 12 schools, so I knew how to get a lot of them out, too,” he explained.
His performance earned him All-League honors as well as the league’s Robert A. McNeece Award as the top professional prospect. He was also named the league’s top prospect by Baseball America.
“He really doesn’t need to improve anything,” said Jim Callis, Baseball America’s executive editor who specializes in the MLB draft and prospects. “If he pitches like he did over the summer, he could easily go No. 1 in the draft.”
Gibson was also named to the All-League team and was rated Cape Cod’s the third best prospect by Baseball America. As of right now, Callis said he is the No. 1 prospect of the 2009 draft but will need to continue to develop his 6-foot-6, 195 pound frame.
Jamieson says his pitching staff projects to be one of the best MU has ever had, and this season’s recruiting class was ranked among the best in the nation by multiple publications.
Jamieson said only a few freshmen, including standout pitcher Nick Tepesch, who was drafted by the Red Sox in the 28th round of the 2007 MLB Draft, will be expected to contribute this season.
“The luxury that we have with this year’s freshmen class is that a lot of those guys don’t have to come in and be front line guys as freshmen. We return so many veteran players, but it gives (the freshmen) an opportunity to kind of get their feet wet and to prepare for the future,” he said. “It’s a good foundation for not as much this year, but it’s a good foundation for future years if we want to keep this thing going.”
Jacob Priday, a senior power hitter, and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Trevor Coleman are two of the veterans the Tigers will once again count on to anchor the lineup.
Although MU fell to Louisville in consecutive games to end their season, Jamieson said there were positives to be drawn from the sold-out crowds at Taylor Stadium.
“Hosting was a big step for the program in a lot of ways,” he said. “Obviously it translates to the success that we had during the season, but above all I think one of the main things that we’re still trying to build is exposure locally and to get people excited about college baseball, and it was a phenomenal step in that direction.”
The team has been ranked in the top 25 of virtually every preseason poll, although their placement varies.
Baseball America gave MU highest preseason ranking ever by placing the Tigers at No. 6, while MU was voted 13th in the USA Today/ESPN.com poll and 17th in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll.
“I think we’re all looking at the same stuff when we rank these teams,” said Callis. “I think we just have faith in the pitching staff. I think it’s probably the best pitching staff in the country along with Arizona.”
Jamieson said his team has gotten used to the high expectations.
“This year’s team is very relaxed. We were ranked tenth in the country two years ago and it kind of freaked some people out. This year is just like they expect it,” he said.
“I just want to be able to contribute to this great team because we’ve got a chance to be great,” Gibson said. “We know that we’re going to be good, but the role players and the key players that are going to come out of the woodwork are going to make us great,” he said.
MU’s first game is Feb. 22 against Connecticut at Stetson University in Deland, Fla. and it will begin its home schedule on March 4 against Western Illinois.