The Tigers (14-6) enter conference play having lost three of their last four games against Southeast Missouri and Youngstown State.
Florida (18-1) have won 12 straight games and will undoubtedly be Missouri’s biggest challenge of the season. The Gators’ impressive record includes wins over two top 15 teams in the USA Today Coaches poll — No. 5 Miami No. 11 Florida State — and a 13-0 mark at home so far this season.
Missouri has lost two of its three series with Florida since joining the SEC. With the exception of a 2014 sweep, the Tigers have always kept the series close. Missouri beat Florida two games to one in 2015, and lost a 15-inning nail biter in 2013 that ended up being the deciding game of the series. A victory against the Gators this year would be a key addition to the Tigers’ tournament resume, but it will not come easy.
After starting the season with hot bats, Missouri has recently started to lose their rhythm. The top of the order has been in a bit of a cold slump recently, going 1-22 against Youngstown State and 5-22 against Southeast Missouri.
Freshman outfielder and leadoff hitter Connor Brumfield (.282) and junior shortstop Ryan Howard (.296) have both seen their averages dip below the .300 mark after strong starts. Junior center fielder Jake Ring (.342, seven extra-base hits, 14 runs scored), freshman Brian Sharp (.321, 11 RBIs, 12 runs) and senior first baseman Zach Lavy (.311, 11 extra-base hits, 13 RBIs, 20 runs) have led the offense.
Florida’s ace A.J. Puk, a junior lefty, is the player to watch this weekend.
Puk (0-1, 2.65 in 17 innings over four starts) has been projected by Scout.com to go third overall in the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft and for good reason. His mid-90s fastball is complimented well by a low-80s slider. Puk is the usual Saturday starter, and is expected to face off against Missouri sophomore right-hander Tanner Houck (2-1, 1.61) this weekend.
The Missouri pitching staff has found some early success behind veteran ace Reggie McClain (3-0), who has an earned-run average of 0.85 after 31 2/3 innings pitched through his first four starts. Sharp (2-0, 0.71), who is also the Tigers' closer, has allowed only six hits and one run through 12 2/3 innings.
Regardless of pitching talent, Florida will get hits this weekend.
Florida will challenge Missouri’s pitching staff with a lineup averaging 7.1 runs and 10.3 hits per game and led by first basemen Peter Alonso.
Alonso goes into the weekend with an impressive .419 batting average with eight doubles, three home runs, 25 RBIs, 18 runs scored and .500 on-base percentage. Alonso is batting .692 (nine hits in 13 at-bats) over his last four games.
The Tigers will have to focus on playing good defense to aid their pitching staff, but Missouri has struggled at times in that department. The Tigers committed 20 errors during their 12-game home stand and improvement defensively could be a major key to winning the weekend.
The first game of the series starts at 6 p.m. (CT) Friday, with McClain expected to throw against Florida’s Logan Shore (4-0, 2.00).