Pitchers key to Missouri’s strong start

Sunday, February 25, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:49 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 28, 2008

Entering the 2007 season, the majority of the MU baseball team’s unknowns centered around its young, mostly inexperienced pitching staff. After nine road games spread over three weekends, much of the team’s starting rotation has been set, while the team’s bullpen remains largely a work in progress.

Rick Zagone entered the season under heavy pressure to repeat the success he found as a freshman in 2006. Injuries to members of last year’s staff gave Zagone the opportunity to pitch 68 2/3 innings last year, the fourth-most on the team, while maintaining a 3.28 ERA, the team’s fourth-lowest.

Despite the pressure of being the team’s Friday starter as a sophomore, Zagone has met, if not exceeded, the expectations laid upon him for this season.

He has pitched 20 innings in three starts to this point, compiling a record of 1-0 and an ERA of 2.25 while striking out 18 batters and walking only four.

Sharing the heaviest burden of preseason pitching expectations with Zagone was sophomore Aaron Crow, who has found similar early-season success. Crow saw even more playing time as a freshman last season, 77 2/3 innings, than Zagone, and maintained an 4.06 ERA.

He has seen less playing time than Zagone up to this point (he was scheduled to start Saturday’s rained-out game against Memphis), having pitched 10 1/3 innings in two starts so far.

But he has shown signs that he is prepared to handle the responsibility of holding the second position in Missouri’s pitching rotation. Crow amassed a 2.61 ERA in his first two starts, striking out six and walking four in the process.

Coach Tim Jamieson knew before the season began that much of the team’s success would depend on Zagone and Crow.

“Both Rick and Aaron benefited from (starter) Max (Scherzer’s) (shoulder) injury last year (which kept him out of the rotation for nearly one month),” Jamieson said three weeks ago. “Those two guys especially are going to have to have good years for us to have a good year.”

While Zagone and Crow had much of their roles for the 2007 season defined before play began, the rest of the team’s rotation was largely up for grabs as the year began. The staff’s biggest standouts thus far have been sophomore transfer Ian Berger, who is 1-1 with a 4.63 ERA after throwing 11 2/3 innings in four games thus far, and freshman Kyle Gibson, who holds a 0-2 record with a 4.02 ERA in 15 2/3 innings pitched, but leads all Missouri pitchers with 19 strikeouts.

Outside of the team’s pitching staff, several of the defensive positions had been secured by returning starters. One newcomer is freshman outfielder Aaron Senne, who has started all nine games for Missouri so far this season and has a .320 batting average as of February 19.

The outfield rotation may be shaken up when junior Jacob Priday, who has been the team’s designated hitter this year while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, returns to the lineup.

His return date is not set, but he has begun throwing longer distances during workouts.

To make up for Saturday’s rain out, the Tigers are scheduled to play Navy at 11:00 a.m. today and then Memphis following that game’s conclusion. Missouri entered the weekend with a 5-2 record, but dropped both games of a doubleheader on Friday.

The Tigers lost to BYU 4-1 in 10 innings and later fell to Akron 8-5 in 14 innings.

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