COLUMBIA — Six-foot-3 pitcher and Missouri graduate Jake Walsh dropped to one knee for a photo op with a young fan following a 5-1 loss to Kentucky on Saturday. A few feet away down the third base line at Taylor Stadium seniors Brannon Champagne and Dillon Everett smiled for another camera, arms on each others shoulders.
Junior pitcher Rob Zastryzny steered clear of the cameras. It wasn’t his Senior Day, but it still might have been his last game at Taylor Stadium. Zastryzny, who has been the Tigers’ top starter for the past three seasons, is eligible for the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft and, barring catastrophe, will likely be offered a six- or seven-figure contract to pitch professionally.
Still, Saturday wasn’t Zastryzny’s last game in a Missouri uniform. The Tigers clinched the 12th and final spot in the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday night, meaning the team will travel to Hoover, Ala., to compete for at least one more day. Zastryzny will be on the mound for the Tigers’ first-round game Tuesday, hoping to extend his time with his teammates.
“I have a chance not to play here next year. I might go to the draft or whatever happens next year doesn’t matter,” Zastryzny said. “These are my brothers, these are my best friends for life, and I don’t want it to be over.”
Just a year removed from a run to the Big 12 Conference championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament, Zastryzny and the Tigers have a track record for postseason magic. But the Big 12 isn’t the SEC, where Missouri has posted a record of 11-19 since joining the conference this season. Missouri coach Tim Jamieson still likes his team’s odds after winning three of its past five games.
“You want to go in playing as well as you’ve played all year, and we probably are right now,” Jamieson said. “And the guys know that we have Rob on Tuesday, which gives them a little bit of a lift as well.”
Jamieson kept Zastryzny on the bench in the Kentucky series in order to make sure his ace is available for Tuesday’s elimination game.
“Whoever we play on Tuesday is not going to be throwing a No. 1, I don’t think,” Jamieson said. “They might be throwing a No. 3, but they’re not going to be throwing a No. 1.”
The Tigers’ No. 1, a tough-on-himself leader in the clubhouse, relishes the opportunity to play with the team’s backs against the wall.
“I always want the ball in a situation where it’s win or go home,” Zastryzny said.
And now more than ever, Zastryzny can’t stand the thought of going home. With a somber look on his face, the Canadian-born lefty reflected on what could be the end of his collegiate career.
“I don’t want to go play summer ball. I don’t want to go anywhere else just yet," Zastryzny said. “I want to go as far into the tournament, maybe make regionals if we can. The end result is to be an SEC champ.”