Through no fault of its coaches or players, the Missouri baseball team may be less prepared than in previous years for its season opener tonight against Florida International in Miami.
Despite having practiced almost daily since early January, mid-Missouri’s frigid temperatures and snowfall this winter have kept the Tigers from practicing outdoors entirely, a rarity for the program.
As a result, the team has held all its practices inside the Devine Pavillion, an indoor facility in MU’s Sports Park housing an 80-yard football field, but little wiggle room for playing baseball. Players have had to do without some of the most basic elements of practice: grass, dirt, sky, and depending on where head coach Tim Jamieson put home plate each day, right or left field.
“We haven’t been able to do anything outside: not wear spikes, not play catch,” Jamieson said. “We’ve walked from our cars to the indoor facility.. That’s the extent of our outdoor exposure.”
Playing indoors has made certain aspects of the game difficult for players to focus on properly.
“The two biggest things are ground balls are a lot easier to judge in here (on turf)... and we don’t really get a good idea of the ball coming off of guys’ bats,” volunteer assistant coach Brian DeLunas said. “You get an idea of if you hit it well or not, but at the same time something you think was hit well in here might die outside. Outfielders aren’t out in the wind and they don’t have to adjust like they would outside.”
Despite the added challenges nature has given this year’s team, Jamieson is optimistic.
“We can’t change (the weather), so we’re going to go down and do our best to win games,” he said.
The team Jamieson took to Florida, and next week brings to Arizona, is a mix of mostly experienced position players and mostly inexperienced pitchers. Two four-year starters, shortstop Gary Arndt and first baseman John McKee, will anchor the team’s infield. Second baseman Brock Bond led the team with a .338 batting average last year and was named MVP of the NCAA Malibu Regional last year. Third baseman Kyle Mach is the infield’s lone underclassman, having won the starting spot after starting five games last season as a freshman. Freshmen Aaron Senne and Greg Folgia each also have potential to see playing time at DH or infield positions.
Jacob Priday, who Jamieson said will play designated hitter initially before returning to the outfield, led the team in home runs (11), RBIs (49), total bases (112) and slugging percentage (.481) and was second in doubles (13) last season. Evan Frey will return at center field after finishing second on the team with a .337 batting average last season. Ryan Lollis will start at right field after starting 25 games last season as a freshman.
Perhaps the team’s most compelling position battle is for catcher. Three players are competing for the starting spot. Junior Dan Pietroburgo, senior transfer Dan Quinn, and freshman Trevor Coleman all have potential to get some starts, but Pietroburgo is listed as the starter for tonight’s game.
After losing a strong group of pitchers from last season, including Nathan Culp, who was named to the All-Big 12 First Team, and Max Scherzer, who was selected 11th overall in last summer’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, the Tigers’ will rely heavily on returning sophomores Aaron Crow and Rick Zagone to lead a young and relatively unproven staff.
“Both Rick and Aaron benefited from Max’s (shoulder) injury last year (which kept him out of the rotation for nearly one month),” Jamieson said. “Those two guys especially are going to have to have good years for us to have a good year.”
“I think we’re gonna step up and... have a pretty good year,” Zagone said. “I like the leadership we have now. It’s kind of setting our own tone.”
That tone, the team hopes, will lead to the same type of postseason success that last year’s team enjoyed. After an up and down regular season that left the team slotted 64th in the 64 team NCAA tournament, the team made it to the Super Regionals, one series away from the NCAA World Series.
“It was a tremendous experience. It was one of the most frustrating years that I’ve ever been a part of, but it also was one of the most rewarding,” Jamieson said. “I think that the frustration lead to the level of enjoyment at the end of the year.”
Despite their stellar postseason, the Tigers were ranked eighth in the Big 12 in the coach’s preseason poll, a disrespect that did not escape Jamieson.
“I think for me (it is disrespectful) because we’re a team that has had consistent success, and a lot of these rankings and polls are based on consistent success,” he said. “So you wonder at what point in time will that be recognized, and I think the answer to that is just to keep winning. The most important poll is the one at the end of the year.”
Jamieson is on the brink of a personal milestone with the team. His first win this season will be the 400th of his career, a mark achieved by only two other Missouri head coaches, John “Hi” Simmons and Gene McArtor, both of whom have had their numbers retired by the program.