Up on the hill where Taylor Stadium sits, the Missouri baseball team has run a gamut of emotions this season: confidence, worry, relief, disappointment and, above all, frustration.
Two players, junior Hunter Mense and freshman Ryan Lollis, have become especially well-acquainted to that last one, but both broke out of season-long mental slumps Saturday in the Tigers’ 9-5 win against Kansas State.
Mense, a preseason Baseball America all-American, was hitting .225 without a home run and with as many strikeouts (18) as hits before Saturday. Lollis was a highly touted freshman but hasn’t even earned regular playing time — he was 6-for-35 with two extra-base hits in MU’s first 21 games.
Saturday, however, was different. Lollis and Mense combined to hit 5-for-6 with two runs and four RBIs and each had a clutch hit in what was a back-and-forth game for the first five innings.
“I think (Mense) has his swing back,” coach Tim Jamieson said. “When he gets pitches to hit, he’s been hitting the ball like that. But he and Lollis both are guys that have struggled and had great days.”
Mense started a two-run rally in the second with a single and then, with the Tigers down 3-2, singled home two more runs in the third.
The junior, who played for the USA national baseball team, said he might have finally found his stroke.
“That’s the kind of game I needed to get going again,” Mense said. “For the past couple weeks, I’ve felt good, I just haven’t had the results I wanted. Hopefully this will be the game that propels me to hit the way I did last year.
“...Mostly it’s been mental. I’ve been trying to do too much with everything, trying to hit home runs all the time and that’s not the hitter I am.”
That was especially apparent in his first at-bat, when Mense took a stomach-high pitch from Adam Cowart and laced it up the middle.
“That’s the way I need to be hitting,” Mense said. “I need to be more aggressive too.”
As for Lollis, the freshman had started only eight games all season when Jamieson inserted him in the lineup Saturday. In his first at-bat, he came up with men on second and third and one out. On a 1-0 pitch, he looped a double to left field. The ball landed inches inside the foul line and the game’s first two runs raced home.
Like Mense, Lollis said his biggest problem thus far has been mental.
“It’s hard coming out of high school where you play every day and then you come out here and you’re not seeing pitching every day,” Lollis said. “You get an at-bat or two a day, but the pitching’s tough.”
After his double, Lollis added a leadoff single in the fourth, a sacrifice fly in the fifth and a walk in the seventh for his most productive day as a Tiger.
“He’s a very talented freshman, but it’s a little bit unfair to him because it’s difficult to get in rhythm when you don’t play every day. But he’s handled it well and he’s got all the talent in the world.”
Meanwhile, freshman starter Aaron Crow fell behind in the count often and was banged around in the third and fourth innings for five runs. Senior Travis Wendte (1-1) entered in the fourth and changed the game, getting out of a jam and setting the Wildcats down in each of the next four innings. His 4 1/3 innings was a career-high.
The Tigers’ win evens the series with Kansas State (17-2 overall, 1-1 Big 12) with the deciding game at 1 p.m. today and snaps the Wildcats’ 16-game winning streak. Missouri ace Max Scherzer, who has been nursing a bicep injury, could return today in a relief role, though Jamieson said freshman Rick Zagone will start for the Tigers (14-8, 4-1).
“We don’t know whether Max will be available or not,” Jamieson said Saturday. “He had a real good day yesterday but was sore today. I’d say he’s questionable. If he feels good tomorrow, he’ll throw tomorrow, but I don’t know how much. If he doesn’t feel good, then we’ll prepare him for next weekend.”