COLUMBIA — The bass-dropping fury of a dubstep jam set the tone in the Missouri baseball locker room Friday night.
That’s how Missouri pitcher Rob Zastryzny, entering the locker room an hour before the game, first gauged just how pumped up his teammates were for the program’s first Southeastern Conference game.
In a schedule change, Missouri and South Carolina will play the final two games of the series beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday in a doubleheader. The scheduled game Sunday will be canceled if the teams complete both games Saturday.
The visiting opponent, No. 5 South Carolina, would serve as a test of how Missouri stacks up against the SEC’s best. With the Gamecock's back-to-back-to-back College World Series finals appearances, including two titles, that was clear.
Zastryzny turned his attention to messages scrawled across the locker room whiteboard:
“Let’s Go.” “Let’s win this.” “Let’s prove a point.”
The smell of charcoal filled the air outside Taylor Stadium in the hour leading up to the first pitch of SEC play. Final remnants of yet-to-be-melted snow seemed out of place next to fans seated in folding chairs behind their cars and SUV’s in a narrow, gravel-paved parking lot. For the first time since midway through football season, pants and jackets had given way to shorts and T-shirts.
Halfway back, a cluster of red stood out from the gold-wearing masses. Among the outliers was Carl Brunenn, a South Carolina fan currently residing in Springfield, Mo. Once he got started, he couldn’t stop himself from sharing the gospel of Gamecocks baseball.
“I get goosebumps just telling you about it,” he said while reminiscing about his days attending South Carolina games in the late '90s at “The Sarge.”
Back then, Brunenn said, his section of hecklers behind the visitors’ dugout made up a significant portion of the small crowd. That was before the pitching trio known as “the Killer B’s” took South Carolina to a Super Regional matchup against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2000, and long before crowds of more than 8,000 started packing the new Carolina Stadium almost every weekend.
With some SEC success, maybe Missouri’s baseball program could make similar strides.
“I think they could, no doubt,” Brunenn said. “Baseball is loved, it’s America’s sport.”
Staring down the strike zone with intense focus, Zastryzny delivered the first pitch of Missouri baseball’s SEC history. South Carolina outfielder Graham Saiko swung and made contact, sending the ball high into shallow right field, where Missouri senior Dane Opel handled it with ease.
One pitch, one out.
Another two pitches, and again Opel grabbed another fly ball. Two outs.
Next batter. Three pitches, three strikes, three outs.
As Zastryzny and his teammates sprinted off the field, an unfamiliar sound filled their ears: the collective cheer of a near sell-out crowd.
Later, Missouri infielder Josh Lester walked down the left field line to the side entrance of the McArtor Baseball Facility. Two series of numbers stood out on the left field scoreboard against the dark night sky. The most important numbers were 4 and 1, representing South Carolina’s margin of victory over Missouri.
Inside McArtor, Lester walked into the batting cages with his head down. His sixth-inning fielding error had put a runner on base, leading to a two-run flurry for South Carolina. He stood in silence, softly pushing the strewn-about baseballs with his feet into a cluster.
Outside the cages, Zastryzny reflected on the same inning.
“I make one better pitch and we’re out of that inning with no runs,” he said.
Still, Zastryzny asserted that he and his teammates had proven a point that day, even if they hadn’t produced a win.
“A lot of people said we couldn’t hang, a lot of people said that we could,” Zastryzny said of SEC competition. “So we went out there not knowing, and it’s a load off a lot of peoples’ shoulders now that we can hang.”