COLUMBIA — The fans, who showed up to the Tigers’ game against No. 5 Nebraska on Friday night at Taylor Stadium in record numbers, seem to be expecting it. The players on the Missouri baseball team aren’t disputing it, either. They say they know it’s time to start playing better.
“Everyone pretty much understands it. It doesn’t need to be said,” said Tigers first baseman Steve Gray. “Everyone knows it’s a big time of the year, and it’s all understood.”
The Tigers, who were tabbed for greatness at the beginning of the season by the media, baseball scouting organizations and itself, hasn’t inspired much excitement since late March when the Tigers, then ranked No. 4 in the nation, swept nationally ranked Baylor.
After going just 17-15 since then, Missouri is now ranked outside of the top 10 in every national poll. The Tigers' 8-1 victory over the Cornhuskers on Friday in front of a regular-season record 2,418 seemed to mark a change, though.
“It’s time to start picking it up,” Gray said. “We’ve got this last series, we’ve got the Big 12 tournament, and then we got regionals coming up. Now is the most important time of the year to be playing good ball, so hopefully we can really start picking it up and keep rolling.”
For eight innings Friday night, Missouri didn’t seem ready to pick up anything. A base hit in the bottom of the seventh had tied the game at 1, but the Tigers’ chance to take the lead abruptly ended when Kyle Mach was caught between third and home.
However, Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow, perhaps making his final start at Taylor Stadium, said he felt like the team was close to breaking through.
“After we scored that run to tie it, I was pumped up and ready to go get three outs real quick and let us score some more runs like we did,” he said.
Crow completed his portion of the plan, retiring the Cornhuskers in order before unleashing a scream and a fist pump on the mound.
“We definitely got some momentum going there. Crow was battling all night, and it’s a big emotional lift to have a guy go out there just be able to shut a team down like that,” said Gray, who knew it was time for the team to support its ace.
“We know that we’ve got to come in and do our job to help pay him back for what he’s doing out there,” he said.
The offense responded with seven runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to seal Crow’s 12th victory of the season, a school record.
“He’s the best I’ve seen this year hands down,” said Missouri coach Tim Jamieson about his star pitcher. “There’s no comparison between him and the other guys. There’s guys that are close but not on the same plateau that he is. If he’s not the national pitcher of the year, I don’t know who is.”
So for a night the Tigers played like the preseason version of themselves and defeated Nebraska’s Johnny Dorn, who is a finalist along with Crow, for the Dick Howser Trophy given each year to the best player in college baseball.
Afterward, the team was exuberant on the field, even attempting to drench Crow with a large cooler of water. The excitement, the team hopes, is back just in time.