Missouri baseball team gets boost from hitting streak

Wednesday, May 11, 2011 | 9:24 p.m. CDT; updated 11:32 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Missouri's Jonah Schmidt was named the Big 12 Player of the Week for driving in five runs and batting .500 last weekend against Kansas State

COLUMBIA — They returned to the dugout with fingers in the air, letting each other know where they stood. 

Blake Brown raised another hand before it was over. So did Jonah Schmidt, who let Brown know when he evened the race or pulled ahead.

The wind blew toward the fence in Manhattan, Kan., last weekend, and a new home run race among the Missouri baseball players was on.

New in that less than three weeks ago any home run competition would have had to include a tee.

Entering the Baylor series on April 21, the Tigers had hit nine home runs in their first 36 games. Since then, they have hit 11 in the past 12 games. In the series finale against Kansas State on Sunday, Schmidt, Brown and Conner Mach each hit one to help Missouri win 12-8 and take its fourth consecutive series.

"It's definitely a competition," said Brown, whose six home runs is tied for team-high with Schmidt. "Every time (Jonah) is up he's like, 'I'm about to tie you' or 'I'm about to go up by one.' We like to have fun, and it has us in the right mindset when we go up there. It's definitely helping the team at this point."

Missouri (21-27, 8-12 Big 12 Conference) is 7-5 in its past four conference series thanks to a long-awaited hitting streak. After leaning on its young pitching staff for the first half of the season and losing eight of its first nine conference games, the Tigers are contending not only for a spot in the conference tournament but a seed as high as No. 5.

"In the first three series we weren't averaging but two or three runs a game," Schmidt said. "You expect to win when you hold teams to three runs, but we weren't doing our job. We've turned it around, and it was nice to pick the pitchers up this weekend."

A long trip to Waco, Texas, wasn't the ideal situation for a turn in fortunes, and Brown couldn't pinpoint exactly what about the series helped get the Tigers going. He said that it might have had more to do with the time of the season than a place.

"Maybe it was the pressure," he said. "We were at a point in our season where, if we didn't turn it around, we were going to lose out. But we also knew that with the limited time we had left, we could still make a run at it."

Missouri has averaged nearly six runs a game since then, scoring runners and getting more extra-base hits.

The home run competition doesn't hurt. Mach is playing catchup in the race with three home runs this season, but he hit two against Kansas State. He said the healthy competition among his teammates has made the games more interesting.

"It's been a lot of fun," he said. "Each time we hit one, we came back in holding our fingers up, counting how many we've got now."

Another dimension of bragging rights occurred to Mach when Schmidt hit his second home run of the weekend on Sunday. Mach, who was named Big 12 Player of the Week after the Baylor series, turned to Schmidt and said, "You might have a shot at this thing."

Sure enough, Schmidt was named Player of the Week the next day for driving in five runs and batting .500 against the Wildcats. Only Oklahoma and Texas Tech have had more players of the week this season.

Only 1.5 games separate fifth-place Texas Tech from 10th-place Nebraska, with Missouri in betweenat the seventh place. Schmidt, Brown and Mach will have to continue their competition if the Tigers are going to clinch a spot in the eight-team conference tournament.

Missouri hosts Texas Tech this weekend and finishes against Nebraska next weekend. A three-game sweep of the Red Raiders would clinch a spot for Missouri in the tournament, and the Tigers don't think that's out of the question.

"We feel great out here," Mach said. "We have confidence that we might come out here and sweep, which would really jump start us into the tournament. We're not messing around out here anymore; we've got our game faces on."

The team didn't formally practice on Monday and Tuesday because of finals, but Schmidt said the team hasn't lost focus, even using batting practice sessions as a break from studying.

"It's always a little difficult with finals, but as much as you're here for school, you're here to play baseball," he said.

Mach said the piece of paper with Missouri's predicted finish in the conference — dead last — still hangs in the locker room, reminding the Tigers what little was expected of them. A spot in the conference tournament, and a respectable shot at advancing, would be some validation.

"That's been something that has made us work," Mach said. "It's starting to pay off. We're putting great games together and are really on a roll right now."

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