COLUMBIA — Of the record-setting 2,205 fans who packed Taylor Stadium on Saturday, maybe few of them came to see Ian Berger. Sure, maybe there were some family members, a friend or two in the stands, but the Tigers’ first regionally-televised game of the season was done so, largely, in spite of Berger’s presence.
This is not his fault.
Sandwiched into Missouri’s rotation between Aaron Crow and Kyle Gibson, aces present and future, the unimposing 6-foot-1 right-hander is easy to overlook. Not blessed with the physical tools required to pump Crow’s mid-90s gas, or with the intriguing projectability of Gibson, the phalanx of scouts that had congregated behind home plate the night before were nowhere to be found. They were replaced by a host of fans who probably couldn’t have told you who Berger was, let alone that he was the Big 12 Conference’s ERA leader at first pitch.
Though he no longer holds that distinction after allowing a season-high two earned runs in Saturday’s 6-2 loss against Oklahoma State, Berger kept his team in the game despite being undone by shoddy defense and an ineffective offense. He provided a workmanlike effort while not at his best.
“He’s been great,” Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said of Berger. “His numbers arguably are as good as Crow’s, and he’s pitched great on the weekends and given us a chance to win every time he’s pitched.
“That’s all we can ask a guy to do.”
Meeting expectations, however, would not be an accurate description for Berger’s season, which began with a demotion.
After making nine starts with an ERA of 3.96 as a Sunday-starter last season, Berger found himself scheduled to pitch mid-week games when Gibson ascended from the closer’s role to his spot. Though he would have been valuable in that role as an innings-eater against lesser competition, No. 2-starter Rick Zagone’s shoulder fatigue offered him the chance to pitch again during conference play, an opportunity that Berger has been unwilling to relinquish.
Had he merely pitched as well as he had in the past, Zagone likely would have been returned to his role, but Berger’s marked improvement over last season has made him an integral part of the Tigers’ success.
“He’s improved tremendously, a lot of it is his confidence, a lot of it is conditioning,” Jamieson said of Berger. “He’s just an all-around better baseball player, and he’s pitching better because of it.”
The improvement, however, has not coincided with an increase in velocity like the one that befell Crow this summer. Instead, relying on changing speeds, surgical precision, and a sharpened curveball, Berger has just done a better job keeping batters off-balance.
“My physical training has been better than I’ve ever had it,” Berger said, attributing it to his development. “I’ve got my body in good shape, and my arm’s been feeling good. My focus, I think, has been the biggest part of my success.”
Though he may not be Greg Maddux, or even Brian Bannister, it’s that same focus that Berger relies on when attacking a hitter.
“I just kind of analyze the at-bat while it’s going,” Berger said of his approach. “I just take it one pitch at a time, and if I see something in the hitter and I feel like I can mess around with him a little bit, then I’ll do it.”
With a 0.81 ERA and a 3-1 record, it looks like he’s been toying with the hitters all along.