The MU baseball team’s pitching staff is loaded. It’s stacked. In lieu of lingo, one might say that it has the potential to be really, really good.
Led by preseason All-American and likely first-round pick Aaron Crow, Coach Tim Jamieson’s stellar collection of arms has his peers envious, the experts gushing, and the Tigers ranked No. 6 in the nation. A very young group last season, the rotation and bullpen both return largely intact and - though including no seniors - very experienced. Factor in the addition of seven highly-regarded freshmen – including 2007 Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year Nick Tepesch of Blue Springs – and the decisions left to be made before Big 12 play begins have less to do with talent than with how Jamieson will choose to deploy it.
Despite being virtually set position-wise, it is the Tigers’ lineup, which lost four starters from last season’s squad, that offers the bulk of the team’s question marks. And though the frigid temperatures indicate he’s a bit early with it, Jamieson isn’t short on that classic springtime optimism.
“I think we have a chance to have a better lineup than we had last year, because the guys in the middle are all back, a year older, and have shown the improvement they need to show,” Jamieson said. “But the key is still going to be who is going to score the runs, because Evan Frey and Brock Bond scored a lot of runs for us last year. And I think if that proves itself over time, the offense could be better – really should be better – than it was last year.”
But then, as is often the case, replacing Frey and Bond – who finished top two on the team in average and on base percentage, and scored nearly 30 percent of its runs – may prove to be far easier said than done.
“Part of the nice thing is that there is no one first-year player that has to step up,” Jamieson said. “They just had guys in front of them last year that were pretty good players. There’s no question that the lineup has to continue to grow, but I think this group of guys are pretty well poised.”
Stepping in for Frey, the Tigers’ catalyst, leadoff man, center fielder and, now, Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand, is senior Kurt Calvert, a speedy left-hander who transferred to MU prior to the 2006 season and has spent most of the past two years serving as a pinch runner.
Greg Folgia, a two-way sophomore who threw 60 innings mostly out of the bullpen last season, is expected to take over the duties at second base and the second spot in the lineup from Bond, who signed on with the San Francisco Giants organization. Though he spent most of his time on the mound, Folgia got into eight games last season as a hitter and has worked extensively on taking ground balls since the fall to get more comfortable with the position.
Senior Jacob Priday, who will reprise his role anchoring the lineup and alternating between the outfield and designated hitter, paid notice to the key departures, but shares the same optimism and confidence as his coach
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that can hit with (Trevor) Coleman and (Aaron) Senne and those guys,” Priday said. “Obviously last year we lost Brock and Frey. Kurt has stepped in in center field – that leadoff-type guy – and then Folgia has stepped up at second base, too. You know, everybody is just kind of filling in, and I think we’ll be all right.”
At first base, senior Dan Pietroburgo and junior transfer Steve Gray are expected to battle for playing time in place of John McKee, and senior Lee Fischer, known more for his glove than his bat, will be counted on to take the place of Gary Arndt, a four-year starter at shortstop.
“I think Lee can play defense with anybody in the nation,” Priday said, “he’s a very good defensive player, and the more game reps those guys get on the infield the better, and hopefully we’ll have it figured out come conference time set in stone who is going to be where.”
While Fischer said he knows he’ll have to produce offensively to stay in the lineup, he also recognizes that his defense is one of the biggest reasons he has the opportunity.
“I definitely take pride in it,” Fischer said. “I love fielding, going out there everyday and taking ground balls, getting better and, you know, my bat is definitely started to follow that.”
The Tigers will need it to if they hope to leapfrog Texas in the Big 12 and make their first trip to Omaha since 1964, and Priday, for one, doesn’t see any reason that the offense won’t be a major reason they get there.
“You know, obviously our pitching staff is good and everybody knows that, but we’ve got some solid, good hitters on this team,” Priday said. “Not one aspect is ever going to win it. Our pitching’s not going to win every game and our hitting’s not going to win every game. I think the mix that we have is good for us, and good for our team.”