However, there is a clear discrepancy between plan and execution. With a 4-9 record, Missouri has deviated from its small ball philosophy all too often to play winning baseball in the Big 12. On Friday, those inconsistencies were on full display.
With runners set up on first and second and with two outs and in the ninth inning, Missouri had a chance to do what it had preached all year: play small and play aggressive.
After the Tigers ignited a rally to score twice and pull within a run of LeMoyne, Eric Garcia laced a single into left field and Brannon Champagne, representing the tying run, took off for third. But that is where he stayed.
“I was scoring,” said Champagne. “In my mindset, I was going no matter what. And then obviously, they were playing a little in and he hit it hard so [third base] Coach [Kerrick] Jackson held me up.”
“I kind of was surprised [that Champagne did not advance], but at the same time, I don’t think they wanted to make two outs at the plate,” said LeMoyne centerfielder Brett Botsford, who threw out the potential tying run at the plate earlier in the inning. “I understand, but I was surprised because that’s the tying run and you never know what’s going to happen with the next at bat.”
Second on the team in stolen bases, Champagne has good speed and has hit either first or second in the order all year. He is a sparkplug, the type of player that perfectly fits into the mold of “play small and play aggressive”. But Champagne stayed put at third and Scott Sommerfeld proceeded to strike out to end the game.
There is no way to say if Champagne would have scored if Jackson had, in fact, waved him home. We will never know. In the long run, though, the question is not “Would Champagne have scored or would he have been thrown out at the plate?” The inquiry is “What is this team’s identity?”
After a 4-1 loss to Gonzaga on Wednesday, in which the Tigers struck out looking six times, it seemed like the entire club had one overwhelming reaction: that they all need to be more aggressive in every facet of the game.
“We have to play aggressive with everything we’re doing offensively. At times we’ve shown that this year, but not often enough,” said Missouri coach Tim Jamieson.
“Tonight, it just seemed like we were real passive,” said outfielder Blake Brown on Wednesday.
“We weren’t the aggressor and I think that just really hurt us out of the gate. We didn’t come with a punch. So I think that’s the big factor,” said Sommerfeld.
But when the Tigers come with a punch, they need to keep swinging for the whole nine innings. This is not new. Tim Jamieson did not pull this issue out of thin air a few days ago. The entire coaching staff has put an incredible emphasis on small ball across the board; And this team does not play usual small ball. It pushes the most exaggerated version of small ball that it could possibly play.
In fact, last Saturday, in a home game against Illinois-Chicago, both Brannon Champagne and Blake Brown reached base to lead off the bottom of the first inning for Missouri. It was a 1-0 game with the Tigers’ number-three hitter, Jonah Schmidt, coming to the plate. What did Schmidt do? He successfully sacrifice bunted the runners over.
Throw out the baseball textbook with this team. Throw out the rules that say you should not have your third hitter bunting in the first inning. Those rules do not apply to this club. Missouri should be playing that type of exaggerated small ball. A team without many power hitters – or even gap hitters – has to put the pressure on the defense before the pitcher puts pressure on its hitters. A team with only 20 extra base hits in its first 13 games – and only five in its previous six – is forced into that strategy. However, there is something to be said for consistency.
A philosophy this exaggerated can work and absolutely can lead to success, but it needs to be the team’s only identity. Missouri has attempted 29 stolen bases – persistent considering they have only been successful on 18 of them – but that is what the team needs to do to win. They need to continually put pressure on the opposition. They need to keep running and they have.
Truly, the only power bat Missouri has is Jonah Schmidt. Because of that, the Tigers’ solution has been to go in the complete opposite direction of power and scratch teams to death as opposed to just putting them away with one swing. Because of that, they cannot just come out with that punch early in the game. They have to maintain that energy throughout nine innings. Friday, they did not.
When Jackson held up the stop sign for Champagne, he took the pressure off LeMoyne, a 3-9 team that is prone to mistakes, and put it on Sommerfeld, his own player. A team that tries to bunt with its three-hitter in the first inning, cannot simply wait for the big hit in the ninth inning of a one-run game. If the Tigers do not anticipate the hit at the beginning, then why do they expect it at the end?
“You just had a guy thrown out at the plate a batter or two before that, so you’re going to be a little bit gun-shy,” said Jamieson. “It’s easy to second-guess, but that’s one out of six or seven plays that you could point at that make a difference.”
However, there is a flaw in that logic. It does not matter that a runner has already been thrown out at the plate – never mind that it was a completely different outfielder making the throw. That logic only justifies the fear of sending Champagne home, not the decision to hold him at third. If the Tigers want to be aggressive, then they also have to manage the consequences of those game-swinging decisions. For every few runners that take an extra base, one is going to be thrown out. When Jackson held Champagne up at third, he suddenly reversed Missouri’s offensive priorities.
The puzzling part arises in considering that those six or seven plays that Jamieson referred to did not deviate from Missouri’s gameplan, but that holding the runner at third says the team will be aggressive in the first inning, but not in the ninth. When Champagne held at third, Missouri baseball deviated from what will give it the best chance to win. Missouri players said on Wednesday that aggressiveness will define the rest of their year. However, now it seems as though that scratch-and-claw style may not be the key to their season, but consistency might be.
Note: Kerrick Jackson was not available to comment for this article.