You wouldn’t expect the Missouri baseball team (0-3, 0-0 Southeastern Conference) to sport an upbeat attitude after getting swept away in their opening series against Southern Mississippi last weekend.
At Tuesday’s practice, though, the baseball squad showed smiles and joked around at the Daniel J. Devine Indoor Practice Facility, while snapping balls and fielding grounders.
Team-leading hitter junior Sal Belfonte, with a .375 average and a .500 slugging percentage, echoed a message that was repeated often during practice to explain Missouri’s 0-3 start, the first such opening series drought since 1977.
“Our starting pitching threw really well, but our hitters weren’t able to come through for them,” Belfonte said. “All weekend, (the hitters) were chasing. We were trying to do too much in the box. That happens. It was good to get that first (series) out of the way … As long as our pitchers keep on throwing, we’ll figure it out.”
The initial pitching from sophomores Jace James, Brett Graves and junior Rob Zastrynzy went 15.1 innings, striking out nine and giving up four earned runs. Those combined outings resulted in a low 2.35 ERA.
According to Sunday starter James, the only pitcher who didn’t perform up to snuff was Zastrynzy, who gave up three earned runs in 5.1 innings pitched on Friday.
“We expect (Zastrynzy) to pitch better than (he did Friday),” James said. “Obviously we have really high expectations for (Zastrynzy). He didn’t pitch up to his standards, from what he told me. He was really upset with himself. He expects to come back better. (Zastrynzy)’s a class A guy. He knows he’s good and he’ll be back.”
Senior outfielder Dane Opel said the problem wasn’t the starting pitching, but instead felt batters rushed too much at the plate. Opel later admitted he himself was trying to pull pitches outside.
“We were really excited (going into the series),” Opel said. “I think some of the guys were too excited. We were running at 100 miles an hour, and we needed to back down a bit. A lot of guys weren’t going with the approaches that we’ve stuck with during the fall and winter. That’s what we’ve been working on the past couple of days is getting back to doing real well with what we’ve been doing.”
Graves said it wasn’t nerves that made the team too excited — it was the lack of experience. Last weekend, 40 percent of Missouri’s team members played their first game as Tigers.
“We have a lot of new guys,” Graves said. “That (over anxiousness) is kind of expected. We’re not okay with it. I was talking to my dad afterwards, and I know we’re a talented team. I know we can progress to where we can end up where we want to end up. It’s good that (the problem) is a mental thing and not a physical thing. I think everybody is just going to settle in and be all right.”
Missouri’s pitching coach Matt Hobbs said his staff didn’t put the ball where they needed to put it, which resulted in blown leads on Saturday and Sunday.
“I think this weekend we need to get back to what we were good at in the past,” Hobbs said. “We need to pound the strike zone and get strikes. Be aggressive and take that mentality on the mound and not give up leads.”
Belfonte said going into this weekend’s series, the team is putting the past behind it and working to improve.
“It was a good situation to have guys in there,” Belfonte said. “Now that they’ve failed, you learn from it. You might as well learn from it in the beginning (of the season) than in the end.”
Missouri faces Memphis at Memphis for a three-game series starting Friday at 4:00 p.m.
Junior infielder Dillon Everett injured his hamate bone in his hand on Friday on the first pitch he took in the season. Everett said after a small surgery to remove the bone, he should be able to return in 10 days to three weeks.
Staff ace redshirt junior Eric Anderson is likely to start on Sunday after undergoing Tommy John surgery nine months ago. It will be his first start since March 9 of last year.