COLUMBIA — The Missouri baseball team has started building confidence in recent series, but at the end of Tuesday's hastily assembled, rain-delayed, windswept doubleheader sweep over Alcorn State, the Tigers finally had the numbers.
8-7 — a winning record entering conference play.
"Last year, of course, we dug ourselves into that hole at 0-6," first baseman Kendall Keeton said. "You could tell just the attitude showing up to the ballpark was different. This year, we're 8-7. We're rolling pretty good ... that's a huge deal, and I think it's going to make us look a lot better, especially when Friday night comes."
It wouldn't have been possible had Missouri not compressed this week's series into one day, based on the winter weather forecast for Wednesday.
Despite losing some preparation time — as well as lacking infielders with Josh Lester unavailable due to sickness — the Tigers turned in a two-game sweep. Missouri won by scores of 11-5 and 5-0 and showed strength in every area of the game.
In the first game, the offense shined. Shane Segovia, back from an oblique strain that caused him to miss last weekend's series against Southern Mississippi, hit a two-run home run on the first pitch he saw in the first inning. Eric Anderson then hit a homer in the fourth inning.
The home runs were the team's second and third of the year and were career firsts for both players. The team scored its 11 runs on 15 hits.
In the second game, Peter Fairbanks threw four strong innings, and the Tigers jumped to a quick 2-0 lead. A storm forced the game into a one-hour, 47-minute rain delay after the top of the fourth inning.
When the game resumed, it was with a sharp drop in temperature and gusty winds out of the north. The flags of Missouri's fellow Southeastern Conference members looked like they were going to be ripped off their poles, and players' jerseys billowed just as much.
The wind aided Missouri's offense: Ryan Howard hit a fly ball to right in the fifth inning that was blown like a plastic grocery bag toward the foul line, and Alcorn State's Earl Burl couldn't handle it. Sean Ullrich and Dylan Kelly scored on the play.
The Tigers' pitchers didn't need any more help than what they got before the delay, though. Keaton Steele was dominant in three innings of relief, and Austin Tribby was equally strong. The two gave up two hits and struck out seven batters in five innings.
Missouri has now won five of six games, adding to the confidence Tigers coach Tim Jamieson saw building since the end of the team's North Carolina road trip.
It began with the late innings of the Tigers' loss to Campbell on Feb. 26 and grew with the loss the following Saturday to IPFW, where an implosion by the pitching staff hid an encouraging performance by Missouri's hitters.
In the next game, Brett Graves dominated Illinois-Chicago. Missouri took a week off, then took two of three games from Southern Mississippi on the strength of pitching and timely hitting.
"You can kind of see guys feeling a little bit better," Jamieson said. "Part of it's the fact that we're getting to play more consistently and how we're back at home."
Though their offense as a whole has shown definite room for improvement, the weak spots in the Tigers' order are buffered by a number of players swinging hot bats.
Keeton went 7-for-9 combined Tuesday, pushing his average to .411 on the year. Kelly is hitting .357, Segovia is hitting .325 and Anderson is hitting .324.
"It takes pressure off the younger guys when you've got the older guys doing what they're supposed to be doing," Jamieson said.
This weekend, Missouri meets a Tennessee squad that is 15-1 and didn't lose a game until March 7.
The Tigers are finished being the team with the target on their back, the major-conference squad squaring off against teams from the likes of the Western Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Now, they're the underdogs. The ones picked to finished at the bottom of the SEC standings.
"I think that's fun to play like that, just to be on the attack and not be back on our heels," Howard said. "Everyone's going to have to accept that mentality and go play our games like that."
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