COLUMBIA — The Missouri baseball team knows what it needs to do to win in the stacked Southeastern Conference.
When the Tigers thrive, they do it on the strength of their pitchers. No. 1 starter Brett Graves and the stout bullpen trio of Keaton Steele, Austin Tribby and Breckin Williams have kept Missouri in many low-scoring games, and fellow starters John Miles and Eric Anderson have been solid as well.
When: 6 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. Sunday
Where: Taylor Stadium
Radio: KTGR 103.1 FM, 1580 AM
But the pitchers can't count on the light-hitting, power-starved Tigers to give them a ton of run support in the way that offensive powerhouses Kentucky and South Carolina can. Missouri is last among the conference's 14 teams in batting average, runs, hits, home runs and slugging percentage.
So, when the Tigers get multiple men on base, they must convert those opportunities into runs. That was the deciding factor in Missouri's victory against Tennessee to open the conference schedule. In that game, Missouri took the decisive lead on a three-run rally, strung together with two singles, a hit batter, an error and a sacrifice fly. In its series win against Auburn, Missouri's two victories were by a combined three-run margin.
When the Tigers don't execute, though, it can make for exasperating losses. They left a combined 20 runners on base in a doubleheader sweep against Tennessee. In Tuesday's 4-2 loss to Southern Illinois, Missouri left the bases loaded in the second inning. Then, with two men on and no outs in the ninth, Josh Lester popped out on a bunt and Kendall Keeton subsequently grounded into a double play to kill a potential rally.
"It's the same thing we've gone through all year," Tigers coach Tim Jamieson said after that game.
There are signs of a turnaround, though. Players such as Anderson, Keeton and Shane Segovia have produced offensively all year, and now the bottom of the order is showing signs of life as well.
Lester has begun to improve on a lackluster start and batted in the two hole on Tuesday. Center fielder Jake Ring, while still hitting .182, had a two-hit game against Auburn and squared up three balls — one for a hit and two for groundouts — against Southern Illinois.
Georgia, Missouri's opponent this weekend, has a 4.35 ERA, which is worst in the conference by a good margin. That gives the Tigers a rare opportunity to rack up runs against a less-than-stellar pitching staff. Future SEC opponents won't be so forgiving. South Carolina (1.69 ERA) and Vanderbilt (1.91 ERA) rank third and fourth in the nation, respectively.
But execution is still king. If the Tigers continue their habit of botching attempted small-ball plays and crumbling with men on base, unsatisfying pitcher's duels will continue to be the result.
Supervising editor Mark Selig.