Missouri stopped short by missed opportunities in series-opening defeat to Alabama

The Tigers scored just one run on 13 hits while grounding into three double plays against Tide starter Sam Finnerty.
Andy Toelken throws a pitch during a game against the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers on March 4, 2018.

Prior to first pitch and for much of Friday afternoon’s series-opening contest between Missouri and Alabama, the flags in center field at Taylor Stadium were tempestuously directed inward and to the right.

The wind was relentless. So was Alabama starter Sam Finnerty.

The Crimson Tide hurler flourished, Missouri hitters floundered, and the Tigers couldn’t figure out the formula to the Alabama Crimson Tide in a 2-1 series-opening loss on Friday, their first defeat in a week. Missouri had won three straight and seven of its last nine before dropping this one.

“The elements, the conditions were tough,” Missouri head coach Steve Bieser said. “Today was a terrible day to hit the ball in the air. We learned that the hard way sometimes.

“We just found ways to lose.”

Indeed, it was an afternoon defined by frustration, bad luck and an abundance of opportunities left out on the bases. The Tigers out-hit Alabama by six, but were out-toughed by Finnerty and the Tide pitching. Finnerty only struck out one in his seven innings of one-run work while allowing 10 hits, but he was aided by three double plays.

“He’s not a strikeout pitcher, so we knew we could wait a little longer in the count,” Bieser said. “His off-speed kind of got us out on our front foot.”

And in the ninth, when Missouri was small-balling together its final rally with the tying run on third base and two outs, shortstop Chris Cornelius couldn’t drive it home. He bounced one to a charging shortstop, who fired across the diamond to strand the last chance and finish it off.

“I was kind of mad at myself because I should’ve taken that pitch,” Cornelius said. “We definitely haven’t reached our peak with our offense yet.”

That groundout to shortstop was a bitterly fitting way to end it for Cornelius and the Tigers, who had seemingly been hitting it right to that spot all day to no avail. It was the starting point of all three double plays.

“We hit the ball hard all day,” first baseman Brian Sharp said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t go in the hole.”

It certainly did for the Crimson Tide, though; the Alabama hitters found all the right holes in the top of the second to exploit Missouri starter TJ Sikkema, who couldn’t find a pitch to get him a third out. The pair of runs Alabama strung together on three straight hits was all it needed.

Sikkema was halfway toward successfully working around a one-out double when Alabama’s Sam Praytor served a liner up the middle. The throw home was on point, but the swipe tag was barely late. Two batters later, a roller to the right side snuck between Sharp and Vierling, and another cannon home missed the mark by a fraction of a second.

“It wasn’t the sharpest I’ve seen [Sikkema],” Bieser said.

But he found a way to limit the Tide to that pair of runs in six gritty innings of work. As for Missouri’s offense? There were always signs of life. Just no life.

In the third, it was a first budding chance snuffed out before it could begin. Freshman Cade Bormet started things off with a single, but senior Alex Samples rolled one to shortstop for an easy double play.

In the fourth, it was a tantalizing waste of an opportunity that had already yielded some reward. Junior Zach Hanna’s single to right field tallied Missouri’s only run and cut the deficit in half. The Tigers seemed poised to do more damage with runners still on the corners and only one out, but freshman Mark Vierling matched Samples with a grounder to short for a tailor-made 6-3 double play, leaving the tying run dangling fewer than 90 feet away.

“We got a lot of hits,” Cornelius said, “but when that happened, we weren’t ready to take advantage.”

For Alabama, it couldn’t have transpired better: threat averted, lead left precariously in tact. For Missouri, it only built up frustration on top of what turned out to be 13 total hits.

In the fifth, it was almost a familiar play turned into a seemingly lucky break. Another grounder to short spelled out another quick two outs, but Alabama fumbled the flip and couldn’t make the turn. The Tide recorded no outs instead of two on the play, but Missouri made nothing of its ensuing two-on, one-out scenario. A pair of fly outs extinguished the spark.

In the sixth, it was the familiar play again, but with no such lucky break. On another grounder to short, the Tigers were doubled up for the third time in four innings — and what probably should’ve been the fourth time, if not for the earlier error.

All day, the Tigers had the baserunners; but five times, they were retired on their way to second base. Twice Missouri had runners picked off, once in the second by Finnerty and once in the eighth by his replacement, sophomore Deacon Medders.

“Sometimes you hit the ball hard and put it right at them,” Sharp said. “Sometimes you get knicks and knocks and everything. It’s just baseball.”

First pitch for the middle contest of the three-game set between Missouri and Alabama is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Taylor Stadium, moved up an hour due to potential inclement weather.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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