Story by Zach Garcia
Throughout nearly a year of several Southeastern Conference debuts for Missouri’s athletic squads, the baseball team may have the school’s toughest inaugural challenge saved for last.
The Missouri baseball team enters play in 2013 on a high note- capturing a conference championship and making an NCAA Tournament appearance in its final season as a member of the Big 12 Conference. As numerous Missouri teams have already experienced, however, the SEC is an entirely new habitat in terms of competition and parity.
Baseball is one of the top sports to constantly showcase the Southeastern Conference’s strength, especially as the first pitch of the 2013 season approaches. Eight SEC teams were ranked in the preseason USA Today Top 25 Baseball Poll (released Jan. 24), with five of those teams appearing in the top 15 spots.
Missouri will certainly have its work cut out before conference play opens on March 1, much of which is still taking place internally. With the Tigers’ season opener a mere eight days away, here’s how each group of the team is lining up:
Missouri left-handed starter Rob Zastryzny figures to be the team’s No. 1 arm, following a very strong 2012 season in which he compiled a 3.80 earned run average over 109 innings, striking out 76 while allowing 31 walks. Zastryzny is the first to speak of the pitching corps’ emphasis on equality, however.
“We’re going with an ‘aces’ mindset, where it doesn’t matter if you’re pitching on Friday, Saturday or Sunday – when you’re out there, you’re the ace,” Zastryzny said. Bullpen ranks will be determined and as solidified as possible throughout the early portion of the season, with Eric Anderson being an especially intriguing pitcher to keep an eye on. Anderson projects to eventually be a starter after experiencing success in that role in 2011, but is returning to the pitching mound less than nine months following Tommy John surgery. Anderson is expected to be ready for the season opener.
Missouri’s infield looks like the team’s most secure grouping, despite losing shortstop/second baseman Eric Garcia to the Atlanta Braves in the Major League Baseball Draft. Gavin Stark could see time at both third and first, and the Tigers appear to be in good hands up the middle with Dillon Everett at second base and Shane Segovia playing shortstop. A deep mix of younger players will fill in the holes and spell starters, including Kendall Keeton, who may actually start at short for the Tigers on opening night after taking reps in practice there while Segovia has rested an injured hamstring. Look for true freshman and Little League World Series champion Josh Lester to emerge and surprise, as well. Everett is the only player from the group who held a starting position in 2012, but isn’t worried that the infield’s developing chemistry will hinder Missouri’s defense this spring.
“It’s still nine guys on the field playing baseball,” Dillon said.
The catching position belonged to Ben Turner in 2012, but with Turner now a part of the San Francisco Giants’ minor league system, duties for the job in 2013 will belong mainly to the duo of Patrick Quintanilla and Dylan Kelly. Quintanilla hit at a .313 clip last year in a back-up role, while Kelly arrives at Missouri following an offense-heavy regime at Middle Georgia Community College.
With the outfield comes Missouri’s biggest question mark, but the uncertainty is due to a wide array of similar depth. Even with the departure of unquestioned leader Blake Brown (also drafted by the Atlanta Braves), the Tigers have a good mix of proven veterans and promising up-and-comers to cover terrain in the outfield. A total of six players – in Scott Sommerfeld, Dane Opel, Brannon Champagne, Sal Belfonte, Logan Pearson and Case Munson – could all see time in the outfield and have all logged numerous innings during preseason scrimmages. Freshman Sean Ullrich, who also holds the potential of earning some time, could increase that number to seven. Returning starter and 2012 co-Big 12 home run leader (11 home runs) Dane Opel says that competition for time is a strength, but far from a focus.
“We have a lot of interchangeable parts right now, and that’s a good thing to have,” Opel said. “There’s always going to be those lineup shuffles, but as far as an approach goes from day-to-day, you can’t really change what you do.”
Even with a fourth outfielder most likely serving as the designated hitter for Missouri on most occasions, the possibility of a different outfield in nearly every game for the Tigers looks to be a very real one.
The 2013 Missouri Tigers baseball team: Quick Hits
Season-opening Series: Feb. 15-17 at Southern Mississippi (Hattiesburg, Miss.)
Opening Home Series: March 1-3 vs. Northwestern
Southeastern Conference Debut Series: March 15-17 vs. South Carolina
Southeastern Conference teams ranked in preseason USA Today Sports Top 25 Coaches’ Poll:
– Arkansas (No. 1)
– Louisiana State (No. 3)
– South Carolina (No. 5)
– Vanderbilt (No. 8)
– Florida (No. 13)
– Kentucky (No. 15)
– Mississippi State (No. 18)
– Texas A&M (No. 24)
Other Notable Series: March 29-31 vs. Louisiana State, April 2 vs. Illinois (Busch Stadium in St. Louis), April 9 at Missouri State (Springfield), April 17 vs. Missouri State, April 19-21 vs. Florida, May 16-18 vs. Kentucky.
The SEC Tournament will be held in Hoover, Ala., beginning May 22.