The Maneater

Climactic weekend set with Tennessee will decide Missouri’s SEC tournament fate

The Tigers must win at least two of this weekend’s three games to qualify for the league tournament.

Zach Hanna runs to first base during a game against the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on March 4, 2018.

Missouri baseball’s back is against the wall.

Entering this final week of the regular season, it was a loser of eight of its last 10 Southeastern Conference games. The Tigers have lost all their steam since a 22-7 start.

The strength of competition has increased on the back half of the schedule, but attribution may be lent more to an offense gone cold. In particular, injured first baseman and potential high-round 2019 draft pick Kameron Misner has led to a lack of presence in the middle of the lineup.

Although Tuesday’s matchup with the Indiana State University Sycamores didn’t affect the Tigers’ SEC Tournament chances, a loss might have all but eliminated them from the conversation for the NCAA Tournament that starts at the end of the month. Missouri found a way to hang on for an 8-7 win on Tuesday against a scrappy, top-100 RPI club from the Missouri Valley Conference.

Lineup fixtures Trey Harris and Brian Sharp each had multiple hits and drove in a run in Tuesday’s win, and despite giving up five runs in the eighth inning to blow a comfortable lead, Missouri went ahead in the eighth for good. Jordan Gubelman finished off the Sycamores in the ninth to earn the save.

For now, the victory keeps the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Now comes the final series of the regular season: a three game set against the University of Tennessee Volunteers at Missouri’s Taylor Stadium.

The formula for making the SEC Tournament is simple: the top 12 of the league’s 14 teams qualify. Missouri must win at least two of the three games against Tennessee this weekend to make it, but two scenarios would constitute the team’s inclusion:

  1. If Missouri sweeps Tennessee.

  2. If Missouri takes two of three AND Texas A&M wins at least one out of a three game set with South Carolina. A Gamecock sweep and ensuing three-way tie between Missouri, Tennessee and A&M would leave the Tigers out of the conference’s top 12.

Without making its own conference tournament, Missouri would seemingly have little realistic chance of making the NCAA Tournament and would likely miss out on a bid for the sixth consecutive season.

Coming into the series, the Volunteers are 11-16 in league play, exactly one game above the Tigers’ 10-17 mark.

Although inclusion in one’s conference tournament isn’t required for an NCAA berth, if the Tigers are unable to win two of three this weekend, their 11-19 (or 10-20) finish in league play would make it almost impossible to justify an NCAA appearance at that juncture.

On the flip side, if the Tigers can take two of three this weekend, they will have a league record of 12-18 at worst (13-17 if they are able to pull off the sweep). That record isn’t pretty either, but it is much more competitive compared to its peers on the NCAA bubble, especially considering that the SEC is widely regarded as the nation’s toughest baseball conference and has had at least half of the league ranked in the top 25 nationally for the entire season.

With a sweep, the Tigers could finish as high as eighth in the conference standings. To add to that, they have 14 wins against top-50 RPI foes. This ranks seventh nationally and indicates that perhaps the Tigers do deserve to be in the big dance. RPI, strength of schedule and top 50 opponents have been taken heavily into account by the NCAA in the past in making tournament selections.

If the Tigers can pull off a sweep against Tennessee, it would maximize their chances based on regular season resume but would by no means guarantee a punched ticket to an NCAA regional. Realistically speaking, the Tigers likely will have to get into the SEC Tournament and then advance — at least — past the first round.

In the SEC Tournament, seeds 5 through 12 play on Tuesday, the first day, in single-elimination matchups, while the top four teams in the conference standings harness a first round bye. If the Tigers can win their first game, the field narrows to eight teams and the format then switches to double-elimination. If the Tigers can get past the first round, they would be wise to win at least one more game in the quarterfinal double-elimination round.

With a weekend sweep and a run deep into the conference tournament, an NCAA bid would become close to a sure bet. But a loss in Thursday’s series opener against Tennessee would put Missouri in an elimination game hole for the rest of the weekend. Sophomore T.J. Sikkema will take the hill at 6:30 p.m. to try and get the Tigers a head start toward a long-shot berth in the season of easily tipping scales.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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