COLUMBIA — Missouri coach Tim Jamieson is in his 20th year on the job, but he has a tough time coming up with a comparison for this season's outstanding bullpen duo.
Keaton Steele and Austin Tribby make up the most dominant bullpen duo this early in the season in Missouri baseball history, as far back as Jamieson can remember anyway.
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"Probably would have to go back to 2006 when we had a pretty solid bullpen, but even that took awhile to take shape," Jamieson said. "It wasn't where it needed to be until near the end of the year."
Missouri pitching coach Matt Hobbs has to think back to his playing days at Missouri, when Ryan Stegall, who ranks second in program history with 18 saves, was finishing games.
"But never a duo like those two," Hobbs said of Steele and Tribby. "Those guys have been really outstanding."
The numbers are explanation enough of the pair's dominance: 13 hits given up in 21 1/3 innings, 24 strikeouts, five walks and no earned runs.
Opposing hitters are batting just .178 against Steele and Tribby, who will play big roles in relief as the Tigers (8-7) open conference play at 6 p.m. Friday at Simmons Field against No. 17 Tennessee. It will be the first matchup of a three-game series.
Steele, a junior in his second year out of Iowa Western Community College, is the easier of the two to explain. The right-hander has a simple delivery with a quick leg kick and generates power from his thick lower half.
He works off a fastball and tight slider. The former has reached the 96-97 mph range this year, a velocity bump from the end of last season. When he can work in a curveball and changeup and throw strikes, as he has so far, it becomes a tough repertoire.
Where Steele and Tribby start to diverge is in their track records. Steele both started and made relief appearances for the Tigers last year, totaling 63 2/3 innings pitched. Tribby made one appearance and threw 1/3 of an inning.
In terms of throwing motion and pitch offerings, the two might as well be playing different sports.
Tribby tops out in the mid-80s with his fastball and throws a curveball that makes a sweeping path to the catcher's glove. He's a tall, long-limbed left-hander with plenty of head and shoulder movement in his delivery.
But Tribby throws strikes, and he has made changes to improve the deceptiveness of his delivery since arriving at Missouri. He worked with Hobbs to move the starting point of his motion from the third-base side of the rubber to the first-base side.
"He told me to maybe switch to the other side because I kind of throw across my body a little bit," Tribby said. "It'll just make my ball a little bit more deceptive because it'll look like it's legitimately coming at a left-handed hitter."
Tribby has also lengthened his stride, improved the velocity and tightened up the break on his curveball. Hobbs said last season, the pitch was easily distinguishable from Tribby's fastball as soon as it left his hand.
The two pitches have blended together more this season.
"Now he's got the hump out of the pitch, and he's able to throw it off his fastball," Hobbs said. "So if I'm throwing a glove-side fastball and a breaking ball and I'm sharing the same window, and my breaking ball is breaking at the plate later, it gives you a much better combo of a pitch mix."
As underwhelming as Tribby's assortment of pitches appears from its description on paper, Hobbs said he has the mentality of someone with an arm like Steele.
"If you got to know him and how much he believes in himself, that's really where his strength is, is his confidence," Hobbs said. "He believes he's going to go out there, and it might be coming out of his hand 84, but to him, it's coming out 96. And he makes you feel like that when he's on the mound with his presence."
In Hobbs' mind, Steele could be a starter for almost any team in college baseball. But Missouri's coaching staff knew it had to build a strong bullpen to compete this season.
The importance of pitching in college baseball has increased dramatically in recent years, and Hobbs said he saw bullpens play a pivotal role in the team's first year in the Southeastern Conference.
Putting a big arm like Steele in the closing role is the Tigers' way of laying a strong foundation and "building backwards."
Steele and Tribby aren't the only bullpen pitchers turning heads.
Sophomores like Breckin Williams, Ryan Phillips and Peter Fairbanks have also had strong stretches. Hobbs said he was impressed at how the bullpen has come together as a unit. The coaches planned around that cohesiveness, but the success they've seen has been surprising nonetheless.
"Very rarely in coaching do you plan something out and it works 100 percent the way you thought it was going to," Hobbs said. "This is exactly what we wanted to do with them, and they're doing exactly what we want them to do."
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