Missouri baseball takes crucial SEC series on a big stage

The Tigers showcased college baseball at its best with a win at SunTrust Park in Atlanta.

Missouri baseball knew that Saturday’s rubber match against the Georgia Bulldogs at SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves, was an opportunity to pick up a series victory against a Southeastern Conference foe and keep pace in the SEC East race.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Saturday’s game was also a chance of a lifetime for both Missouri and Georgia players: the opportunity to play a baseball game in a brand-new Major League Baseball stadium in front of 33,025 fans.

In just the second game in SunTrust Park history, and the first open to the public, Missouri rode a three-run homer from junior and Georgia native Trey Harris and a career-best outing from junior Bryce Montes De Oca to a 6-1 victory in front of the second-largest crowd in NCAA baseball history.

Coach Steve Bieser said he was pleased with his team’s resiliency.

“We were able to bounce back and win the series, and if you can continue to win series you can be pretty successful,” he said. “I thought offensively, we did a really good job of attacking once we got them in trouble, and have a couple of big innings. Obviously Trey's home run was very important to get us back in the lead."

The win kept Missouri in a three-way tie for third place in the SEC East and two games out of first place in the division. But the impact of the game on this Missouri team could stretch much farther than just these next few weeks of SEC baseball, and perhaps even this season.

The odds of the players on the field in Saturday’s game playing in a major-league stadium again in their lifetimes are quite low. With approximately 34,500 NCAA baseball players in any given season, only about 700 of them will be drafted by major-league teams. Of those 700 athletes, only about 9.1 percent of them, or approximately 64 players, will reach the major leagues.

Every player knows these numbers, which made Saturday’s contest all the more special. The unique atmosphere and setting for the game, coupled with the significance of the game for this year’s upstart Missouri team, brought out the best in some of the Tigers’ best players.

One such player was Harris. The junior right fielder went 1-for-3 with two walks, two runs scored and a three-run homer on Saturday to finish off a series that saw him go 5-for-10 with two home runs and five runs batted in. He also made a highlight reel play in the second inning, fully extending his body to rob Georgia catcher Austin Biggar of a hit and prevent a runner at second base from scoring. His catch garnered applause from the Georgia faithful in attendance.

Montes De Oca also stepped up to the challenge and continued to show why some feel he could pitch on major-league mounds sometime in the future. He posted six dominant innings, yielding one run on just two hits while striking out six. Listed at 6 feet 7 inches, 261 pounds, the imposing junior right-hander showcased an electric fastball and located his slider well to overpower Georgia’s hitters and boost his draft stock for this year’s MLB Amateur Draft in June.

TJ Sikkema, the true freshman who’s been nothing short of ridiculous out of the bullpen for the Tigers this season, threw the final three innings on Saturday, giving up no runs on two hits, a walk and three strikeouts. Sikkema showed that his lack of experience continues to not be an issue, as he once again provided shutdown innings for his team and earned his fourth save of the season. He boasts a 0.64 earned run average and has struck out 53 batters in 42.0 innings while picking up five wins for the Tigers this season.

Through the efforts of Harris, Montes De Oca and Sikkema, the Tigers may have saved their season, at least for now. But in showing they can play their best baseball in front of huge crowds in special situations, Missouri also proved that it may just be ready to get back to the NCAA Tournament and being a perennial college baseball power in the coming years.

For now though, the Tigers will just enjoy being able to take advantage of what will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of them. And what an opportunity it was.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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