The Maneater

SEC, NCAA Tournament chances dwindle as Sunday walk-off steals series from Missouri

The Tigers scored just eight runs in the three game set at South Carolina.

Zach Hanna runs to first base during a game against the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on March 4, 2018.

The Missouri Tigers entered the weekend with seven remaining regular season games on the schedule, six of which were Southeastern Conference matchups. They were one game behind the Tennessee Volunteers for the final spot in the SEC tournament, in which the top 12 of the league’s 14 teams qualify, and were already considered on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Every game was, and is, precious.

But the Missouri bats weren’t in form throughout a daunting weekend series at South Carolina, failing to win the series after taking a tightly-contested opener 5-3. The Tigers then dropped the Saturday and Sunday contests 6-3 and 1-0, losing the rubber match on a series-clinching, walk-off home run.

Friday’s series opener started out looking like a pitcher’s duel. TJ Sikkema, who has emerged as the go-to option for game one of a weekend series, was especially sharp in the early going. Neither team got on the scoreboard for the first three frames.

After surrendering a run in the fourth, Sikkema came back out for the fifth and was able to retire two hitters before allowing the Gamecocks to load the bases. He was then replaced by starter-turned-reliever Andy Toelken, who was able to get a key strikeout in that tight spot.

In the meantime, the Tiger bats came alive thanks to some small ball. Connor Brumfield walked to open the fifth, followed by an Alex Samples single. They were both sacrificed into scoring position by Chris Cornelius and then drove in by Brian Sharp’s two-run single. Brett Bond then drove Sharp in and suddenly the Tigers were up 3-1.

After Missouri added two more in the sixth, the Gamecocks were able to claw back into the game with two runs off of Toelken in the eighth, but Nile Ball entered in the ninth and shut the door for his team-leading sixth save of the season. The Tigers had a 5-3 game one victory.

On Saturday, Missouri turned to recently struggling junior Michael Plassmeyer. Coming into Saturday’s contest, the lefty had given up six or more hits in each of his last five starts and the team had dropped four of those five contests.

He didn’t have his best stuff on Saturday either, but received minimal support from his offense or defense.

The Gamecock offense got off to a fast start. A leadoff single and then a double allowed them to manufacture two runs via run-scoring groundouts and get off to an early lead.

In the top of the third, the Tigers loaded the bases with no one out but could not bring a single one of them in. Trey Harris bounced into a fielder’s choice, forcing the lead man out at the plate, before Chad McDaniel grounded into an inning-ending double play, killing momentum and not providing any support for Plassmeyer.

The Gamecocks added two more runs in the fourth, aided by a Tiger error. Plassmeyer exited after five innings trailing 4-0.

The Missouri bats woke up in the eighth, but it was too little too late, as the Gamecocks had added two more in the seventh to increase their lead to 6-0.

Sharp connected for a solo home run to get the scoring started for the Tigers and McDaniel drove in two with a double, but that was all the offense the Tigers could muster.

The Gamecocks held on in the ninth and won the middle game of the series 6-3, setting up a critical rubber game on Sunday with huge SEC and NCAA Tournament implications for the Tigers.

Sunday truly was a pitcher’s duel for the duration of the game. Tyler LaPlante got the start for the Tigers and was dominant throughout. In eight innings of work, he allowed just one run while scattering five hits and one walk to go along with eight strikeouts.

Five different Tigers were able to record a hit on the afternoon, but they were unable to push any runs across after a missed opportunity in the early going.

Sharp walked to lead off the game and advanced to second base. Samples got a base hit into the outfield and Sharp was gunned down at the plate to end the inning. That was the closest the Tigers would come to sniffing the scoreboard all day.

And after getting through eight shutout innings, LaPlante was sent back out to the mound for the ninth, despite a pitch count of 112. His first pitch of the inning, he served up up a walkoff home run to Carlos Cortes and South Carolina ended with two of three on ice while Missouri packed up for a bitter trip home.

Looking ahead to the final week of the regular season, it’s do or die time for the Tigers. They face the Indiana State Sycamores in a 6 p.m. matchup Tuesday at home.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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