Brett Graves wasn’t upset.
Southern Mississippi shortstop Michael Sterling was the second batter Graves faced on Friday night. Sterling hit a grounder towards freshman shortstop Ryan Howard that seemed routine, but it wasn’t. Howard missed it, and Sterling got on base.
When Missouri came back to its dugout, after Graves retired the next two batters, Graves talked to his shortstop.
“You’re there for a reason,” Graves told Howard. “You’re a stud. You’re going to make the next one. I know you will.”
And Howard did make the next one. He assisted on three different outs, as Missouri (5-6) topped Southern Miss (6-8), 4-1, behind Graves’ arm.
Howard’s error in the top of the first did nothing to spurn the Tigers’ confidence; they got to work early.
In the bottom of the first, with runners at the corners, catcher Dylan Kelly hit a fly ball that looked like a certain out, but Golden Eagle center fielder Connor Barron was unable to find the ball, and sophomore second baseman Josh Lester scored from third.
Shoddy Southern Miss defense allowed the Tigers to add one more in the first.
Missouri sophomore third baseman Zach Lavy grounded to third to initiate a bases-loaded double play, but how the two outs were recorded proved crucial. Southern Miss third baseman Bradley Roney threw to second base rather than stepping on third base first, eliminating a force out and allowing senior first baseman Kendall Keeton to score a second Tiger run.
It would’ve been enough for Graves’ had Missouri’s offense stopped there.
Graves, who came into the game against the Golden Eagles having thrown 15 straight scoreless innings, gave up one run in the top of the second when Southern Miss designated hitter Ryan Ellis scored from third off of single by catcher Austin Roussel.
For the next six innings, though, Graves’ and his defense behind him – including Howard – were almost flawless.
Graves gave up just one single each in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings and held Southern Miss without anymore runs.
“You’d guys be surprised how big an impact that really does make on a pitcher,” Graves said of the confidence boost his team’s early run support gave him.
The Golden Eagles’ starter, Conor Fisk, was, for much of the night, arguably as good.
After his team’s defensive miscues in the first inning, Mizzou couldn’t string anything together against Fisk for five straight innings.
“He was really good at throwing multiple pitches early and often,” Lester said.
But Tigers figured Fisk out in the seventh inning.
Freshman centerfielder Jake Ring, the Tigers’ nine-hole hitter, worked a two-out walk against Fisk in the bottom of the seventh.
Fisk’s next batter, senior designated hitter Eric Anderson, would be his last.
Anderson pulled a ball toward the left field foul line. Ring scored from first for Mizzou’s third run.
“When he’s grooving like that, you just go to break his rhythm,” Anderson said. “That’s what Jake did.”
Fisk threw 6.2 innings, giving up four runs on five hits with eight strikeouts.
Lefty Luke Lowery came in relief, but it got worse before it got better.
On Lowery’s first pitch, Lester doubled past Southern Miss third baseman and Anderson scored from second, giving Mizzou its fourth run of the game.
The ugly hit didn’t rank high on Lester’s list of favorites.
“Didn’t exactly hit it too hard, but hey, they all count,” he said.
Graves attempted to throw a complete game, coming out to pitch in the ninth, but he hit the first batter he faced in the inning and was pulled. He walked off the field to a standing ovation from the crowd of 1,028, the largest recorded opening day crowd in Missouri baseball history. Junior Keaton Steele who loaded the bases but struck out the side to end the game.
It was Steele’s third save of the season.
Graves finished the night going eight innings with eight strikeouts, allowing five hits and four runs. His record is now 2-1 on the year.
Graves said he was happy with his performance this season – in his last three starts he’s gone 23 innings, giving up 10 hits and just 2 walks while striking out 14 – but, in terms of his preparation, nothing is drastically different from past seasons.
“I haven’t done anything special,” Graves said. “It’s not any secret … I can tell you right now, line it all up, what I’ve got to do this week to get ready to pitch next week.”
And while the routine might remain the same, Graves doesn’t want to flatline.
“I want to keep getting better as the year goes on,” Graves said. “I want to be playing as good as our team can play in June, when we’re playing in the postseason.”
He’ll have to wait until his next outing to see if he can be better. Before that, the Tigers will finish their series against Southern Miss. Junior righty John Miles will be on the mound for Mizzou on Saturday. First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m.