Expectations for the University of Missouri baseball program are high this spring based on a strong core of returning players and a disappointing end to the 2015 season.
The Tigers went 30-28 overall and 15-15 in Southeastern Conference play. They advanced to the third round of the SEC Tournament but did not receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, something that didn’t sit well with the team.
“There was a while where the screen saver on my phone was the picture of the last four teams out,” Missouri junior shortstop Ryan Howard told reporters at Thursday’s media day session. “It was just a little motivation each day when you wake up and you’re feeling a little tired or you don’t want to do something and you look at that and you go ahead and you head to the field and you get your work done that day.”
“The emotion that we had when we didn't get the call, it hit me a little bit,” sophomore pitcher Tanner Houck told reporters. “The next thing I thought was ‘Alright, what can I do to help improve this team?’ We all feel like we’ve worked our tails off all offseason.”
Missouri is No. 15 in PerfectGame.com’s preseason Top 25 poll, which was announced last month. The Tigers were No. 34 in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason Top 40 announced in December.
The optimism for this season for coach Tim Jamieson’s squad comes from the group of returners, led by Howard and Houck, who both played with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team last summer.
Missouri returns two of its top three starting pitchers from last season in right-handers Houck and Reggie McClain.
McClain, a redshirt senior, went 7-7 with a 3.56 earned-run average in 15 starts last season. In 101 innings pitched, he struck out 80 batters, walked 19 and limited opposing batters to a .257 average.
Houck, who has already been named one of the top prospects for the 2017 Major League Baseball draft, went 8-5 with a 3.49 ERA in 15 starts during his freshman campaign. He struck out 91 and walked 12 in 100 2/3 innings and opponents hit .233 against him.
“It’s the intangibles that make up his character,” Jamieson told reporters. “He loves to compete and he’s gifted athletically, but that’s what makes the difference.”
Jamieson said Thursday that McClain will be the Tigers’ Friday starter and Houck will start on Saturdays. The competition for the Sunday starter, the coach said, is between senior lefthander Austin Tribby (0-3, 5.86 in 31 relief appearances) and freshman lefty Michael Plassmeyer.
Mizzou returns four of its top five hitters from last season.
Howard, a junior shortstop, will hit leadoff, Jamieson said. He batted a team-best .308 in 58 games last season with 13 doubles, five home runs, 39 RBIs, 29 runs scored and a .369 on-base percentage.
Switch-hitting sophomore catcher Brett Bond hit .294 with five homers, 25 RBIs, 25 runs scored and a .352 OBP. Junior outfielder Jake Ring batted .282 with a team-high 15 doubles, three triples, four homers, 30 RBIs, 39 runs scored and .376 OBP. Sophomore outfielder Trey Harris hit .263 with seven doubles, one triple, four home runs, 22 RBIs, 27 runs scored and .307 OBP.
Another sophomore, third baseman Shane Benes, should have a bigger role after missing most of his freshman season because of a knee injury. One of Mizzou’s top signees in his recruiting class, Benes batted .265 with seven extra-base hits in 19 games played as a freshman.
The Tigers open the season with a four-game series against Seton Hall beginning on Feb. 19 in Fort Myers, Fla. They will play at Florida International on Feb. 24 and then have another four-game series against Hofstra University in Fort Myers the following weekend.