Missouri takes two of three from No. 12 Vanderbilt in historic weekend series

The series win was Missouri’s first against Vanderbilt in program history.
Bryce Montes de Oca pitches in a game last season. Photo Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics

There’s no other way to put it: The Southeastern Conference is loaded with baseball talent. With nine of its 14 teams nationally ranked in the USA Today Coaches Poll entering this weekend — and one of those unranked teams, Missouri, receiving votes — the conference has proven to be the most challenging in the country this season.

Missouri has shown the ability to compete with every team in the conference except one: Vanderbilt.

That changed this weekend in Columbia.

The Tigers won 2-1 Thursday night, 3-1 on Friday and fell 6-2 on Saturday, taking two of three from the No. 12 Commodores to clinch the the team’s first series victory over Vanderbilt in program history.

Head coach Steve Bieser said the series win was a big one for his team.

“We came into a weekend series knowing that we had to win the series, and we were able to do that,” Bieser said. “We came out and played really clean baseball the first two games and had some timely hitting.”

Missouri got tremendous starts from two of its three starting pitchers and a decent one from its third, allowing the team to stay competitive against the Commodores.

In the first game of the series — a cold, windy Thursday night affair — sophomore left-hander TJ Sikkema was nothing short of brilliant for the Tigers. He scattered seven hits and two walks over six innings of work, yielding just one run and striking out 10. Sikkema kept Vanderbilt’s hitters off balance, relying heavily on his fastball in the early innings before turning more to his breaking ball after finding his release point in the later frames. He kept his team in the game against Vanderbilt starter Drake Fellows.

Fellows, a sophomore right-hander out of Joliet Catholic Academy in Illinois, matched Sikkema pitch for pitch, throwing seven innings of two-run ball (one earned), walking one, giving up four hits and striking out nine. However, when the Tigers were able to get baserunners on against him, they made them count.

In the second inning, Missouri picked up its first hit of the game on a single to right field from designated hitter Cade Bormet. Bormet, a freshman, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt and to third on a costly wild pitch before scoring on a two-out infield single from senior Matt Berler to give Missouri a 1-0 lead.

In the top of the fifth, Vanderbilt tied the game on an RBI single to right, but thanks to some good fortune, Missouri answered immediately in the bottom half. Sophomore infielder Chris Cornelius got the rally going when he reached on an error with one out to give Missouri a base runner. Sophomore Connor Brumfield followed with a successful sacrifice bunt to the pitcher to advance Cornelius to second before senior Trey Harris came through with a single through the left side that proved to be the difference in the game.

In addition to Sikkema’s dominant effort, Missouri got strong work out of senior right-hander Andy Toelken, who’s emerged as the team’s best bullpen arm. Toelken was dominant, firing three perfect innings and striking out four, including two in the ninth, to pick up his third save of the year.

Bieser said via a press release that he was pleased with his team’s complete effort on Thursday night.

“It's a signature win for us, starting a series off that way,” Bieser said in the press release. “We need to continue to pitch and defend and get timely hitting and we have to take chances on offense.”

On Friday night, the Tigers did exactly what their coach was hoping they would do. Missouri got off to another strong start, this time from junior left-hander Tyler LaPlante, who threw six innings of one-run ball while striking out five. The Tigers also once again took advantage of a Vanderbilt defensive mistake, scoring in the second inning following an error to pick up the team’s only run scored off Commodores starter Patrick Raby.

Raby was No. 80 on Baseball America’s Top 100 MLB draft prospect list entering the 2018 season, and it showed Friday night. Missouri hung in against him, though, forcing him to throw 115 pitches in seven innings of work. He was relieved by Zach King, whom Missouri got to in an eighth inning that proved to be decisive.

In the bottom of the eighth with the game tied 1-1, Cornelius started Missouri’s rally with a leadoff walk. Pinch hitter Paul Gomez advanced him to second on a sacrifice bunt before Harris and pinch hitter Chad McDaniel walked, setting up a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity for Missouri’s veteran backstop, senior Brett Bond. But Bond struck out, leaving pinch hitter Mark Vierling as Missouri’s last chance to take advantage of the scoring opportunity. Vierling came through in a big way, sending a 2-2 pitch through the left side of the infield to score Cornelius and Harris and give Missouri a 3-1 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

Bieser said in a press release he was especially happy for Vierling, who’s struggled at the plate in the month of April.

“He picked the right time to get a hit,” Bieser said via press release. “He had a great at-bat, [and I’m] really pleased with him and proud of him.”

Junior right-hander Nile Ball worked a scoreless ninth to pick up his eighth save of the year for Missouri and send the home crowd home happy on Star Wars Night while redshirt junior right-hander Bryce Montes de Oca’s two scoreless innings out of the bullpen were enough for him to earn the win.

Saturday’s game was a different story. Missouri’s inability to score runs against Vanderbilt’s strong starting pitching finally caught up to it in the matinee game, as the Commodores rode a dominant start from freshman Mason Hickman to a 6-2 win over the Tigers.

Hickman, a ninth-round MLB draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels out of high school, did not look like a freshman for most of the day. He fired seven innings of two-run ball (none earned), giving up just four hits and retiring eight in a row in the middle innings. Missouri struggled to get solid contact off him for much of the day.

One guy who didn’t have such struggles was senior second baseman Matt Berler, who went 2 for 4 with two doubles, including a two-run double in the seventh that accounted for Missouri’s only offense.

Berler said Missouri will have to find more ways to advance runners and manufacture runs.

“We’ve just got to keep grinding out at-bats; we’ve gotta keep working hard in the cages and keep finding ways to score more runs,” he said. “It’s not always about hits. It’s about finding ways to score more runs than the other team, so that’s really what we’ve gotta keep focusing on. If we win the rest of the games by one run, nobody is going to say anything.”

Michael Plassmeyer, who entered the contest with a sub-2 earned run average in SEC play, did not show up on Saturday. The junior left-hander went 5 2/3 innings, surrendering five earned runs while striking out seven to earn just his second loss of the year.

Although the Commodores didn’t make particularly sharp contact off him, Plassmeyer said he was still frustrated with his effort.

“We had an opportunity to go for a sweep, but I didn’t bring my best stuff out, ” Plassmeyer said. “I didn’t have [my breaking ball] today. [The weak contact is] definitely frustrating as a pitcher, but it’s kinda baseball, and we’ve definitely had our fair share.”

After three innings of little to no offense on either side, Vanderbilt opened the scoring in the fourth on an RBI single and scored again in the fifth on an infield single to take a 2-0 lead. The Commodores tacked on three more runs in the sixth and one in the seventh to put the game out of reach.

Bieser said his team started having poor at-bats once it fell behind in the game.

“I felt like we lost a little bit of momentum and some of the winds dropped out of sails when they got that 2-0 lead on us,” Bieser said. “It felt like we started pressing, and we really didn’t have some good at-bats.”

Next up for Missouri is a home game against in-state rival Missouri State Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. The Tigers beat the Bears 8-6 on the road on April 10 and will go for the season sweep with Brian Sharp on the mound.

Berler said his team will have to maintain its intensity against the Bears, a team that also received votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

“We gotta bring the same energy we brought to their place, coming back and punching them in the mouth like we did at their place,” Berler said.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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