Missouri opens play in America’s top baseball conference

See what Missouri needs to do come out on top in the SEC.

America’s top baseball conference is almost ready to open play for the 2016 season.

The Southeastern Conference produced four of the last eight College World Series winners, had four of the eight teams in the 2015 College World Series and had seven players drafted in the first round of the MLB Draft.

This year, the Missouri Tigers (13–6) are aiming to conquer this very conference and qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

Here are three things Missouri must do to make sure it doesn’t relive its 2015 experience of narrowly missing a spot in regional play.

Split the opening two series Missouri has the toughest opening conference schedule of any team in the nation entering conference play.

In consecutive weekends, the Tigers play No. 1 Florida (18–1) and No. 2 Vanderbilt (16–1). Vanderbilt has made appearances in the final series of the past two College World Series.

If Missouri can win one of those weekends, it will be a fantastic start to SEC play. However, both of the Tigers’ opponents are just as good and probably better at Missouri’s top strength: pitching.

While Missouri’s starting rotation has posted a 3.29 earned run average, Florida’s starters have averaged a 2.71 ERA and Vanderbilt’s starting ERA sits at 2.50. Missouri will not be able to rely on out-pitching the nation’s top two teams.

Missouri will need its hitters to step up to the plate consistently in both series as well as throughout the season. So far, the Tigers’ batters have been shaky when it comes to scoring, plating eight runs one game and only three the next.

“It’s frustrating,” senior first baseman Zach Lavy said. “Baseball’s not easy. If it was easy everybody would be doing it.”

McClain and Houck are must wins Redshirt senior Reggie McClain and sophomore Tanner Houck have combined for a 1.23 ERA over the course of 59.2 innings in eight games. The other four pitchers who have started at least one game have combined for a 4.32 ERA over 70.1 innings.

The dropoff between Missouri’s opening two pitchers to the bottom half of the rotation is severe. Therefore, it is imperative that the Tigers take advantage of their ace pitchers when they can.

So far this season, McClain has been given the run support he needs, going 3–0 in four starts. Even in his lone no decision, the Tigers still ended up winning on a walkoff home run from junior shortstop Ryan Howard. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his counterpart.

Houck is 2–1 in his four starts this season, with his no decision ending in a loss to the University of Illinois at Chicago. This was not what coach Tim Jamieson had planned when he slotted Houck, a projected top pick in the 2017 MLB Draft as the starting pitcher for the team’s second game, the game that usually decides how the series will shake out.

“Saturday has probably become the more important game,” Jamieson said. “It kind of swings the series one way or another.”

Remain consistent The downfall of the 2015 Tigers was their inability to find any sort of rhythm down the stretch.

Missouri started its season 20–9 and then went 10–19 in the second half of the season. While the Tigers were playing tough competition in the SEC, Missouri was unable to form any sort of streak as the season wound down, sweeping one series and then getting swept the next.

This season, Missouri has stayed consistent for the most part, winning all of its series but one. The only thing going against the Tigers is that they have not played any schools from the Power Five conferences.

Jamieson is quick to remind his players that having a chance to reach the NCAA Tournament or being left at home can come down to one game in hopes that the Tigers will play with the same intensity every day.

“I think the recognition that we were literally one game short,” Jamieson said. “Hopefully that’s motivation enough to know which game is it.”

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