Good time for Missouri baseball team to get hot

Thursday, May 31, 2012 | 9:41 p.m. CDT; updated 2:50 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 1, 2012
Pitcher Jeff Emens (No. 20) pumps his fist as Missouri players celebrate defeating Oklahoma 8-7 on Sunday to earn the program's first Big 12 Conference tournament championship.

* An earlier version of this story misstated the seeds for New Mexico State and Louisville. New Mexico State is the No. 2 seed, and Louisville is the No. 3 seed for the Tucson Regional.

The Missouri baseball team seems to have found its rhythm at just the right time.

After closing out the regular season by losing four of its last five series and finishing sixth out of nine teams in the Big 12 Conference standings at 10-14, the Tigers became a different team at the conference tournament.

Now, after winning four straight in the final Big 12 event for the team before moving to the Southeastern Conference, the Tigers are one of 64 teams to start NCAA regional play Friday.

"It's special in so many different ways because we've struggled this year, so many ups and downs," said Missouri coach Tim Jamieson in a press conference after beating Oklahoma 8-7 in Sunday's Big 12 championship game. "We got rid of a lot of Big 12 demons."   

The Tigers are set to play Arizona at 10 p.m. Friday in the Tucson Regional.

The host Wildcats (38-17) are the regional's top seed after earning a share of the Pac-12 championship with UCLA. New Mexico State (38-17) and Louisville (39-20) fill out the four-team event.*

Arizona was No. 5 in the country with a .325 regular season team batting average, and the Wildcats' pitching staff has thrown 11 complete games this season.       

But the fourth-seeded Tigers (32-26) haven't looked bad during their recent winning streak.

Shortstop and leadoff hitter Eric Garcia was named Big 12 tournament Most Outstanding Player after hitting .500 in the event with three RBIs and five runs. Designated hitter Michael McGraw, who just returned from a strained ligament in his left hand on May 19, hit .467 at the tournament with two doubles for four RBIs and three runs.

Also, no Tiger pitcher had an ERA over 4.50 last week, and the staff allowed just 11 earned runs over four games.

Friday will be an exciting day for Missouri.

"This program has always taken pride in what it can do in the postseason," Jamieson said Sunday. "I thought we played like a regional team all week."

Still, the Tigers are far removed from the conversation about a possible NCAA Tournament winner.

Lots of competition: South Carolina is the two-time defending champion, and 2011 College World Series runner-up Florida is the No. 1 national seed. Those aren't the only teams poised to make deep runs at the title.

Southeastern Conference regular-season champion LSU (43-16) earned the No. 7 national seed and features one of the great stories in college baseball in conference player of the year Raph Rhymes. The junior left fielder voluntarily gave up his scholarship after last season so coach Paul Mainieri could use the money to go after recruits to improve the program. Must be good karma. Rhymes is batting a nation-leading .459.

Pac-12 co-champion UCLA (42-14) is the No. 2 national seed and playing a home regional for the third year in a row. Don't let the Bruins' lack of power numbers fool you. They know how to get on base and move around runners, and their pitching staff is deep.

Big 12 regular-season champion Baylor won its first 18 conference games and comes into regionals as the No. 4 national seed and on a 22-game home win streak.

No. 6 North Carolina (44-14) has the best record in the Atlantic Coast Conference and is a national seed for the fifth time in six years. Coach Mike Fox knows how to get his team to Omaha, Neb. The Tar Heels have reached the College World Series five of the Past six years.

Can South Carolina win a third straight title?:  The No. 8 national seed Gamecocks have rebuilt their roster after losing several players that helped the program win back-to-back NCAA titles in 2010 and '11. It wasn't always easy — South Carolina lost five of six to start Southeastern Conference play — but coach Ray Tanner has built another formidable group. Ace pitcher Michael Roth leads the rotation while veteran slugger Christian Walker has been helped by newcomers like LB Dantzler, Tanner English and Joey Pankake. There should be plenty of intrigue in the Columbia Regional, especially considering archrival Clemson is the No. 2 seed.

SEC's usual suspects: Even though Florida, LSU and South Carolina received the national seeds, it's Mississippi State and Vanderbilt that are the hottest teams in the SEC heading into the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs won the SEC tourney last week thanks to their pitching staff, which has a league-best 2.58 ERA. Ace right-hander Chris Stratton (11-1, 2.21 ERA) is one of the best pitchers in the country. Vanderbilt was in danger of finishing the season below .500 a month ago but won 12 of its final 14 games against SEC competition.

Ducks and beavers are all in: Both Oregon and Oregon State are in the field for the second time in three years. The light-hitting Ducks have a dominant pitching staff led by Alex Keudell. They lost out on the Pac-12 title by getting swept at Oregon State last weekend, but they're still the No. 5 national seed in only the fourth year since the program was reinstated after a 28-year hiatus. The Beavers feature one of the nation's top freshmen in Michael Conforto (13 HRs, 71 RBIs) and have won seven of their last eight games. But they face a difficult task having to travel to LSU's rowdy Alex Box Stadium.

Can Florida State finally win it all?:  Florida State is almost always one of the nation's best teams, but has never been able to break through to win the championship under veteran coach Mike Martin, who's taken the program to Omaha 14 times in 33 seasons. The Seminoles are the No. 3 national seed this time around but have lost four of seven games heading into the Tallahassee Regional, which includes a difficult No. 2 seed in Mississippi State. Florida State's hopes revolve around the team's two terrific freshman starting pitchers, Mike Compton and Brandon Leibrandt.

Is Purdue for real?: The Boilermakers followed up their first Big Ten regular-season championship since 1909 with their first conference tournament title. They were the Big Ten's best hitting and pitching team and have the conference's player of the year in catcher Kevin Plawecki. But they play in the improved but always lightly regarded Big Ten, so what does it all mean? They are No. 8 in the RPI and have 14 wins over top-60 RPI opponents. But with Kentucky adding SEC flavor to the Purdue-hosted regional in Gary, Ind., the Boilers will be hard-pressed to get to a super regional.

Missouri State the dark horse?: Missouri State is just 5-6 in its past 11 games, but it landed in as favorable a regional as it could have hoped for with first-round opponent Central Florida, host Miami and Stony Brook. The Bears' 2.51 ERA ranks second in the nation, and Missouri Valley freshman of the year Nick Petree is 10-3 with a 0.92 ERA. Central Florida is a balanced but not intimidating club, and though Miami is long on tradition, this isn't a vintage Hurricanes team. It's a regional ripe for the taking.


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