Tigers’ approach shifts to ‘small ball’

Missouri plays No. 3 Texas A&M in a three-game series this weekend.

A week after facing one of the nation’s best pitching staffs in No. 1 Texas, Missouri’s scuffling offense will not get a reprieve with No. 3 Texas A&M coming to Columbia for a three-game series March 20-22. Faced with another weekend series of tough pitching, Missouri has shifted its offensive focus to playing “small ball” — bunting, hitting and running, stealing bases, etc. — in an effort to scratch home enough runs to win.

“The pitching is really good in our league, so we have to assume that the games are going to be low-scoring,” coach Tim Jamieson said. “If that’s the case, then we need to get guys in scoring position more often and be aggressive. We have a lot of veteran hitters in this lineup that we’d like to be able to have sit back and swing the bat, but right now, it’s not working so we’re going to try to make something else happen.”

The Missouri offense was only able to muster five runs in its three-game series at Texas, and with two of the Big 12’s most dominant pitchers coming to town, scoring runs won’t be any easier. The Aggies boast two starting pitchers, sophomore Brooks Raley and junior Alex Wilson, with ERAs less than 2.50, but their impressive stats don’t end there. Raley is 4-0 and has held opposing batters to a .209 batting average, and Wilson has held batters to a .157 batting average with an eye-popping 43 strikeouts in 25 innings.

Raley and Wilson are not exactly the right recipe for an offensive rebirth, so taking advantage of every offensive opportunity will be paramount for the Tigers during the weekend.

“If we execute (playing small ball), it’ll open up more opportunities to get guys on base and timely hits,” said senior Ryan Lollis, whose two-run triple in the fourth inning was the deciding blow in Missouri’s 4-1 win against SIU-Edwardsville on March 18.

One of the sparkplugs for Missouri’s “small ball” approach could be shortstop junior Michael Liberto, who went 1-for-1, drew two walks and had two stolen bases March 18.

“He fouls off pitches with two strikes and makes the pitcher work, and when he gets on base he’s able to steal a base and make things happen,” Jamieson said of Liberto. “When the lineup turns over and you have your nine-hole hitter on base, we can reap the benefits if we get the top of the lineup swinging the bats like they’re capable of doing.”

Just as Texas A&M will feature two dominant starters over the weekend, so will Missouri. Junior Kyle Gibson (3-1, .90 ERA, 38 strikeouts in 30 innings) will start Friday and an improving sophomore Nick Tepesch (1-1, 5.04 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 25.0 innings) will start Sunday. Jamieson would not commit to senior Ian Berger, who allowed four earned runs in five innings against Texas on March 14, as the Saturday starter.

Although hinting that it was unlikely, Jamieson did mention that the coaching staff is considering using a traditional midweek strategy of throwing a number of pitchers an inning apiece against Texas A&M this weekend.

“We’re closer to doing it than we have been,” Jamieson said of the strategy he used in Wednesday’s win against SIU-Edwardsville in which 11 pitchers saw the mound. “I’m not sure we’re ready to do it the second series of the year, but we may also talk about it and do it this weekend."

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