The Tigers finished just 2.5 games better than last place Oklahoma state last season and were picked in the preseason Big 12 coaches’ poll to finish last in the conference for 2011, Now, coming off a disappointing 29-26 (10-16) season, there are plenty of new faces in the Missouri clubhouse.
“We feel like there’s a number of guys that are capable of having great years, both on the mound and offensively,” explains head coach Tim Jamieson, who is entering his 17th year at Missouri.
Last year’s rotation of Nick Tepesh followed by take-your-pick is now completely turned over. Ten pitchers started games for the Tigers last year. Head coach Tim Jamieson says right now that junior college transfer Matt Stites will be his Friday starter. Stites will be followed by freshman Rob Zastryzny and senior Zack Hardoin (1-2, 5.61, 33.2 IP) to round out a rotation without much experience. However, while Zastryzny is only a freshman and has never thrown an NCAA pitch, he is coming off an All-American 17-1 senior season, in which the Texas-native struck out 190 batters in only 104 innings pitched.
“Zastryzny, you might not be able to spell at first, but you’ll know him by the end of the year,” jokes volunteer assistant coach Dan Pietroburgo. “The guy’s got good stuff, comes right at the strike zone and goes right after hitters.”
None of the Tigers’ three .300 hitters from 2010 return. With Aaron Senne, Brett Nicholas, and Michael Liberto leaving in lastsummer’s draft, the Tigers have multiple holes to fill in the lineup. Redshirt sophomore Andreas Plackis (.260-1-19, 96 ABs) will be taking over the catching duties.
“Nobody knows who our catcher is,” cracks Jamieson regarding his lack of a big name behind the plate. “(Andreas Plackis) is our starting catcher right now, but as a freshman last year had a pretty solid year.”
Jesse Santo (.196-0-15, 97 ABs), a natural shortstop, will man the hot corner. Sophomore Eric Garcia (.288-6-31), the team’s leading returning hitter who played second base last year, will move over to shortstop to replace Liberto for the upcoming season.
“Eric’s a natural shortstop,” says Jamieson. “He’s got a great arm, obviously. He’s made every play for us and with Jesse Santo at third, we’ve really got two shortstops on the left side.”
Shortstop is not the only move for the young middle-infielder. Garcia will also be taking his talents to the mound, closing out games for the Tigers.
“Garcia will play at short,” explains Jamieson. “Also Garcia, is potentially our closer. That’s a guy really no one knows about as a pitcher. He didn’t pitch last year, but that should give us a really good punch at the end of the game.”
Junior Conner Mach (.267-2-10, 60 ABs) will help contribute to a raw infield, which will most likely be going through a learning process early in the season.
Junior Ryan Gebhart (.328-1-11), who only had 67 at-bats last year, will move into the outfield. Brannon Champagne (.250-0-6), who only managed 44 at-bats in 2010, will most likely join him. Senior Jonah Schmidt, who had more homeruns last year than any Missouri returning player, returns poised for a breakout season. Schmidt has steadily improved between each of his seasons as a Tiger and the coaching staff believes this offseason was no exception.
“If you look at the returning players, there’s nothing to get excited about if you look at the numbers,” says Jamieson. “But if you look at the growth those guys have had, for example, Jonah Schmidt is a senior and it’s been a slow progression for him, but he could have a breakout year.”
Jeff Lusardi, who sat out last season after transferring from Arizona State, will be used as a designated hitter and a left-handed bat off the bench.
“Jeff is kind of getting his feet wet,” explains Pietroburgo. “He had a year at Arizona State, came here, sat out last year. He might not be a starter right off the bat, but he’ll get some (at bats). He’ll be a contributor; definitely a great left-handed bat to have off your bench. He’s definitely got a good approach to the plate. Sees a lot of pitches and has a good inside-out approach.”
“I think right now, he’s a left-handed bat off the bench, potentially a DH,” analyzes Jamieson. “He’s behind some of the other outfielders offensively and defensively but he is a guy that as the season progresses could expand on that role.”
Among the surplus of outfielders is Dane Opel (.270-3-30), a sophomore from Edwardsville, IL. Like Schmidt, Jamieson believes that Opel is ready for his breakout season.
“Dane Opel and Eric Garcia are two sophomores that really had pretty good freshman seasons last year,” explains Jamieson. “The difference between this year and last year is that there is a more significant line between the guys that are going to contribute and the guys that are going to be role players. Last year was really muddy. So I think we’re going to be playing 10, 11, 12 guys positionally and we’re going to be using as many pitchers as we have to, to win.”
If Opel and Schmidt can lead a formidable middle-of-the-order, with some help from the pitching staff, Missouri may be able to prove the preseason pollsters wrong.
“It hurt last year breaking the streak that we had going (of eight consecutive postseason births),” says Pietroburgo. “We don’t return a lot of guys. We understand why we’re picked where we are. At the same time, we’ve got a lot of guys that built off last year and we’ve got a lot of new guys this year, who have the potential t be very good college players.”
Photos are courtesy of Missouri Media Relations