A big slump came at the wrong time for the Missouri Tigers.
After starting the Big 12 Conference season 8-1, MU has gone 3-6 in conference games, falling from first place to fourth. Missouri has lost four of its past five games overall, including two at the hands of a sub-.500 Southwest Missouri State team.
“I think guys just need to reflect on what we need to do,” coach Tim Jamieson said. “It’s not so much physical right now. It’s more mental.”
Things won’t get any easier. Two of the No. 17 Tigers’ last three conference series are on the road against ranked opponents, starting this weekend in Lincoln, Neb., against the No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers (37-9 overall, 12-6 Big 12).
Missouri is 31-14 and 11-7 in the conference and finishes the regular season with three games at No. 10 Baylor.
The Nebraska series starts at 6:35 tonight at Hawks Field and will continue at 2:05 p.m. Saturday and 1:05 p.m. Sunday.
The Tigers need to win this series to stay in the picture for a Big 12 title. Winning two out of three would draw the Tigers even with their northern rivals and keep them within striking distance of Baylor, which is 15-6 and has the weekend off.
Seven of MU’s past eight road games, however, have been losses. The biggest problem has been offense.
An MU lineup that scored double-digit runs in 17 of its first 26 games has struggled to produce of late, scoring one run in three of the Tigers’ past five games.
“The guys are struggling to get things done on the offensive side, and that creates pressure everywhere else,” Jamieson said.
Not helping matters is that junior outfielder James Boone, the Tigers’ best RBI man, has missed all but two innings of those five contests with a sore back. He is expected to play this weekend, but that was also the case last week against Texas.
Three weeks ago, the Tigers entered Stillwater, Okla., having won 19 of their previous 21 games. They left on the short end of a three-game sweep and in an offensive funk. Junior designated hitter Bryson LeBlanc said he expects the team to break out of it just as suddenly.
“We’re still the same people we were a month ago, nothing’s changed,” LeBlanc said. “This is a brutal game and it can kick you mentally big time…It’s going to take one hit, and you watch, we’re going to break out and score a lot of runs.
“When? I don’t know. It’s going to happen this Friday at Nebraska, hopefully.”
It won’t be easy, considering Nebraska has the best ERA in the Big 12 and sends a starting rotation to the mound that is a combined 18-4 with a 2.16 ERA.
There are a couple of things working in Missouri’s favor.
Junior second baseman Zane Taylor has rebounded from a non-conference season when he struggled for playing time to become one of MU’s most consistent conference hitters.
“It’s turned around for me at the plate,” Taylor said. “It was a slow start for me, but anything can happen, and I got hot for a while, and now I see myself in the lineup.”
But perhaps the biggest thing in Missouri’s favor is its own pitching staff. The Tigers’ staff is second in conference ERA, led by sophomore Max Scherzer’s league-leading 1.36 mark.
“I think it’s certainly necessary when you’re going to fight to score runs to make sure you get good starting pitching,” Jamieson said, “and I still feel confident on the weekend that we’re going to do that.”
BIG INVITE: Scherzer will face Nebraska starter Joba Chamberlain in a heavyweight matchup tonight after receiving some exciting news this week.
The sophomore right-hander has accepted an invitation from USA Baseball to try out for the 2005 national team June 27-30.
Scherzer, who leads the Big 12 with a 1.36 ERA and 98 strikeouts, was one of 13 players to accept an invitation this week. Twenty of the 36 players invited to the tryouts will be selected for the team July 1.