Situational hitting, starting pitching critical for Missouri baseball’s first SEC series

The Tigers have scored 58 runs over the last five games.
Designed by Corey Hadfield

Moving runners has been an emphasis for Missouri coach Steve Bieser since the beginning of the season. This holds particularly true with SEC games in mind, where situational hitting and not leaving runners left on base will be an integral part of succeeding in a conference with 11 of its 14 schools currently ranked in the top-25.

Bieser’s Tigers will face its first in-conference test starting Friday, traveling to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to take on the No. 10 Razorbacks in a three-game weekend series.

The Razorbacks are poised to return to college baseball’s promised land, the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, a year removed from being the runner-up to the National Champion Oregon State Beavers.

Its pitching staff, headlined by redshirt junior Isaiah Campbell who, in four starts this season, is 3-0 with a 3.09 ERA in 23 1/3 innings with 33 strikeouts. He’s only given up one run over its last three games.

The probable starter for Friday’s contest, Campbell will face off against a Missouri squad that’s improved since its opening day loss at North Florida University.

Over the last five games, the Tigers have scored 58 runs, and have done a better job of capitalizing on opportunities to score runs.

While the team has recorded large run totals during its five-game winning streak, it didn’t lose sight of Bieser’s small ball approach to offense.

In the 9-4 win against Northwestern on March 10, Bieser had his cleanup hitter, junior Chris Cornelius, bunt to move two runners over. Both runners scored later that inning. Asked after that game if it was a hard decision to bunt him, Bieser explained the ease.

“It’s all about scoring runs,” Bieser said, “whether that’s [junior] Kameron Misner or my cleanup hitter. If the defense gives us something that really opens up something for us to attack, then we’re going to attack it with everything we have.”

Later that game, sophomore Mark Vierling laid down a safety squeeze to score a runner from third. Vierling, who’s batting .375 this season, is one of five players on the team batting at least .340 with more than 40 at-bats this season — Cornelius (.411), Misner (.393), senior Tony Ortiz (.357) and sophomore Chad McDaniel (.345).

McDaniel is also in the midst of a 12-game hitting streak, his most recent being a two-run home run in the seven-inning 14-4 win against Arkansas State last Wednesday.

Leading the high-powered, small ball offense into Fayetteville will be Misner. The preseason Second-Team All-American is pacing the team in home runs (five), stolen bases (10) and slugging percentage (.696). Misner also leads the team with 20 walks. This can be directly attributed to teams pitching around the lefty.

As a product of being walked so much, Misner has adopted an aggressive approach to being walked.

“If they walk me, I’ll just steal second,” he said.

His aggressive baserunning results in Cornelius, who bats after him, having more opportunities to hit runners in. This gives an insight into why Cornelius leads the team with 18 RBIs.

Going into SEC play, Misner expects to be pitched to more.

“There’s a lot of good pitchers in the SEC,” Misner said. “There’s a lot of guys who think their stuff is better than everybody else. I foresee them coming right at me.”

Starting next to Misner in the outfield at Arkansas will be freshman Josh Holt Jr., who Bieser said Wednesday would be the leadoff hitter for the series. Finding outfield stability has been a focal point for Bieser and his staff.

Along with good hitting, the starting rotation will also have to keep Arkansas’s lineup at bay. Bieser will look to the starters to pitch further into games so that less bullpen arms have to be used.

The ace of the staff, junior T.J. Sikkema, will in all likelihood be the Saturday starter for Missouri, with junior Jacob Cantleberry starting Friday and senior Tyler LaPlante on Sunday.

“Our starters need to go deep in the game,” Bieser said. “T.J.’s shown that he can go deep in the game, but we’re going to have to mix and match at Arkansas. They have a high powered offense. Our bullpen will be pushed.”

That bullpen, led by sophomores Konnor Ash and Ian Bedell and seniors Cameron Dulle and Jordan Gubelman have given up just seven runs through the winning streak.

The pitching staff will have its hands full with a Razorbacks offense that’s No. 21 in the country for team batting average (.306).

Facing a top-25 lineup is a daunting task, but Ash said after the game Wednesday that the pitching staff is ready for the challenge. His coach agreed.

“I think we’ll really find out a lot about the club this weekend,” Bieser said.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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