COLUMBIA — When the Missouri baseball team came one strike away from winning the championship of the Big 12 tournament after spending most of the regular season last year as a conference afterthought, it was no secret who was behind the resurgence.
Pitcher Eric Anderson, a 6-foot-5-inch right-hander, had just returned from offseason shoulder surgery.
"It really started when Eric Anderson got into our rotation and started pitching on Friday night," Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said. "We won every Friday night game when he came back. We won every series except for the Nebraska series after he came back. We won his start in the Big 12 Tournament."
And that was with Anderson operating at less that 100 percent.
"Last year at this time (spring training), he was throwing 78 miles per hour. Right now he's touching 90," Jamieson said. "From a coach's eye, his arm is quicker, his delivery is better, he's in better shape which should mean we should see a jump."
Anderson will be on the mound for Missouri on Friday afternoon when the Tigers open the season against future Southeastern Conference opponent Auburn at Samford Stadium in Auburn, Ala. Missouri enters the season picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 by coaches in the conference, but the Tigers are planning on exceeding expectations.
"This is the best team we've had since 2008 in terms of talent and experience," Jamieson said, referring to a team that finished three games out of first place in last year's Big 12 standings. Besides getting back Anderson, now a junior, as staff ace, Jamieson's 2012 team will return six of its top seven hitters from last season's lineup.
"That doesn't predict exactly what's going to happen during the season, but it's the best position we've been in in three years," Jamieson said.
Joining Anderson on the mound will be last season's interim-Friday night starter, sophomore Rob Zastryzny, who's coming off a selection to the Big 12 All-Freshman team. Coaches are expecting an improvement from the 4.33 ERA he posted last season, citing improved control of his off-speed pitches.
Zastryzny will be starting the second game of the series against Auburn with sophomore Jeff Cline, a Maplewoods Community College transfer, rounding out the weekend's rotation.
The loaded SEC has six teams ranked in the top 25 of the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Preseason Poll, but Auburn isn't one of them. Coaches in the SEC picked Auburn to finish 11th out of the conference's 12 teams.
Missouri's first home game this season will be March 2 against Ball State. This game will also serve as the beginning of a 19-game home-stand for Missouri, including its first conference game of the season March 23 against Oklahoma State.