Defense keeps struggling hitters in lineup

Friday, March 21, 2008 | 10:06 p.m. CDT; updated 8:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — After spending the previous month preparing for it, the No. 4-ranked Missouri Tigers entered Friday night’s Big 12 Conference opener on a roll. Their pitching staff, touted by many publications as the best in the nation, has weathered the loss of No. 2 starter Rick Zagone, and is threatening to exceed expectations. Their defense, a returning strength, has been the conference’s best, and a lineup that had struggled to score runs early in games has been staking its pitchers to leads.

The Tigers’ performance against the No. 14-ranked Baylor Bears in front of a buzzing Taylor Stadium proved, if nothing else, that they had their timing down.

“First night of conference, at home, a thousand people in the stands, (Aaron) Crow on the mound — it’s exactly how we wanted to play, and we got the job done,” sophomore outfielder Aaron Senne said. “It’s a good feeling.”

After giving Crow a four-run lead in the first inning, Missouri wound up scoring six more runs than their ace needed as he worked through early control issues to record his second-consecutive shutout and lower his ERA to 1.03 in the 7-0 victory.

“You could tell he went to a different level there in the ninth inning,” Tigers coach Tim Jamieson said of Crow’s three ninth-inning strikeouts, “but it was a good team effort because we did so many things well offensively.

“We played pretty good defense behind him, and got the hits when we needed to.”

Where the Tigers didn’t get hits, however, and haven’t been getting hits from all season, is from the bottom of their lineup, which appears to be the only major hole for a team that has won 11-straight games and harbors legitimate title hopes.

For now, Jamieson is remaining patient with his slumping third baseman Kyle Mach and shortstop Lee Fischer, and though he said he is concerned with their lack of offense, it’s their gloves keeping them in the lineup.

“Kyle and Lee are out there for a reason, they play good defense,” Jamieson said. “You don’t have to score a lot of runs if we keep pitching the way that we have, and the first seven guys are pretty tough outs.”

For the Tigers to continue on and contend for a national championship, however, their offense likely must improve. Good defense or not, it would be nearly impossible for the team to reach such heights with no production from those spots. After Friday’s game, Mach is batting .176 with two extra-base hits, while baseballs have actually been hitting Fischer with a greater frequency than he has been hitting them, by a count of 7-5.

But as long as Missouri keeps pitching well and, more importantly, winning, the two will get time to work through their struggles.

“Hopefully we can get those guys going,” Jamieson said, “but that may not happen.”

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