Perspective: Baseball hitting its stride as conference play looms

The Tigers are 5-4 in league play heading into April.
Bryce Montes de Oca pitches in a game last season. Photo Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics

The Missouri baseball team is hitting its stride at the right time.

The Tigers are ranked 18th in the nation this week; what’s more, the team is rising quickly. The Tigers were not ranked in last week’s edition of the poll but moved up into the top 20 thanks to a gutsy series win on the road at Auburn, a team ranked No. 9 in the nation in RPI.

The Tigers are finding success by following a relatively simple formula. Quality starting pitching has been the key, and although the entire rotation has had success, a dynamic duo has emerged in juniors Bryce Montes de Oca and Michael Plassmeyer. The two have started half of the Tigers’ games so far and sport earned run averages of 2.38 and 2.4, respectively. Montes de Oca has had a few particularly good outings when the team needed him most, such as his six-inning performance at Auburn on Sunday in which he allowed no runs and just one hit.

On offense, the Tigers have had contributions from up and down the lineup, but a two-headed monster has formed in right fielder Trey Harris and first baseman/outfielder Kameron Misner. Misner, a Poplar Bluff, Missouri, native, is hitting .371 with four home runs and 25 runs batted in, and is slugging a ridiculous .629. He leads the Southeastern Conference in walks with 32 and is getting on base at a .522 clip.

Harris is hitting .354 and also has four long balls to go along with a team-leading 29 RBIs. Misner has been more consistent, as he had hit safely in eight straight games until Saturday’s contest. However, Harris has come through in the clutch time and time again, with no hit bigger than his grand slam on Sunday at Auburn to put the Tigers up 4-0 and seal a crucial SEC road series win.

Brian Sharp, the Tigers’ only two-way player, has contributed on the mound and at the plate and essentially carried the team on offense in the first week of the season, earning SEC Co-Player of the Week honors on Feb. 26.

The excitement around the program is palpable. Second-year head coach Steve Bieser has had success everywhere he has coached, winning two state titles at St. John Vianney High School in St. Louis and returning his alma mater, Southeast Missouri State, to prominence. He appears poised to duplicate that success at Missouri, as he has gotten a lot out of this team that, on paper, isn’t very talented compared to its Southeastern Conference peers. The Tigers’ 5-4 record in SEC play is real reason for optimism given that Missouri has not finished with a winning record in league play since it joined the conference after the 2012 season. Dating back to its days in the Big 12 Conference, Missouri hasn’t finished over .500 in league play since 2009.

While this year’s Tigers are clearly much improved from previous seasons, fans would be wise to temper optimism somewhat and take a “wait and see” approach for now. While Missouri’s series win at Auburn last weekend is impressive, a lot of its wins, particularly in the nonconference slate, are nothing to write home about. Series sweeps against UMBC (No. 255 in RPI) and La Salle (No. 273) aren’t exactly resume builders.

What’s more, the Tigers still have a three-game set at Florida (No. 3 in RPI), as well as series against Georgia (No. 8 in RPI), Kentucky (No. 20 in RPI) and Vanderbilt (No. 29 in RPI). The SEC is loaded top to bottom, as this week’s top-25 coaches poll includes 10 SEC teams. No conference has ever had 10 teams in the poll concurrently. The league is scary deep.

For now, Tigers fans would be wise to get excited but fasten their seat belts for a month and a half of SEC play. Whatever happens, Bieser has put a quality product out on the field, and his Tigers sure are fun to watch.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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