Preview: No. 24 Missouri to face No. 23 Tennessee in three-game series at Rocky Top

The Tigers will open the series against the Volunteers at 5:30 p.m. CDT on Friday.

No. 24 Missouri is coming off of a weekend sweep against South Carolina that put the team back into the rankings, and into the Coaches Poll top-25 for the first time this season. With the SEC Tournament looming, the Tigers will travel to Knoxville, Tennessee, to take on No. 23 Tennessee in a pivotal three-game series this weekend.

The weekend series could be the tipping point for the Tigers. At 10-10-1 in conference play, a series win would put Missouri over .500 in the SEC for the first time this season. Against a Volunteers team that ranks in the middle of the SEC in most relevant offensive categories, good pitching will be paramount.

Missouri’s pitching staff has been solid this season. It’s pitched its team into series wins against ranked Ole Miss and Louisiana State and to a tie with ranked Texas A&M. Two weekends ago, the Tigers met its match in Georgia, which out-pitched the team and sent MU back to Columbia having been swept for the first time in over a month.

While Missouri may have been quiet offensively throughout the series, the pitching staff still performed well, giving up 12 runs over three games. In its series against South Carolina last weekend, the pitching staff continued its success.

Highlighted by its near no-hitter led by ace junior TJ Sikkema, the staff flourished against the Gamecocks’ offense. Even when junior starting pitchers Jacob Cantleberry and Art Joven struggled — Joven didn’t record an out on Sunday and gave up four runs — the bullpen picked them up, surrendering three runs all weekend.

With a team earned run average of 3.03, Missouri ranks first in the SEC going into the weekend and has one of the lowest team ERAs in the country.

Coach Steve Bieser will use his normal rotation, minus senior Tyler LaPlante, who’s still nursing a forearm injury. Bieser said Tuesday that the team is hoping for LaPlante to return against Florida, the weekend of May 16-18.

Cantleberry will pitch Friday against Tennessee junior right-hander Garrett Stallings. Cantleberry is coming off a win against South Carolina in which he gave up two runs as well as a lot of hard contact that resulted in loud outs.

Last weekend against Arkansas, Stallings was roughed up, giving up eight runs over 3 2/3 innings. However, he’s had strong outings during conference play, including a complete-game shutout against Georgia.

Sikkema will start Saturday against another southpaw, sophomore Garrett Crochet. Sikkema’s last start brought his ERA down to 1.31 and he is No. 8 in the country in the category. Like Stallings, Crochet had a poor start against the Razorbacks, giving up six earned runs over 4 2/3 innings.

Missouri hasn’t announced who will pitch Sunday against Tennessee junior Zach Linginfelter. Bieser has employed an “opener,” — a pitching philosophy started by the Tampa Bay Rays in which a relief pitcher starts the game — this season against Missouri State. Depending on the availability of bullpen arms, Joven could be another candidate to start.

The pitching staff, regardless of who pitches, will have to be picked up by its offense. The Tigers have been hitting well over the last week, most recently putting up 21 runs against SEMO.

Leading the way over the last week has been junior Chris Cornelius and sophomore Chad McDaniel. In the last four games, the pair went a combined 22-for-33 (.666). Cornelius also had two home runs, and currently leads the team in batting average (.348), doubles (10) and RBIs (39) — freshman Tre Morris has a higher average, but only has seven at-bats.

The series starts Friday at 5:30 p.m. CDT, followed by an 11 a.m. CDT game on Saturday. The final game of the series will be at 1 p.m. CDT on Sunday.

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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