COLUMBIA, MO. — After capturing another SEC series, the Missouri baseball team continues on its course to the NCAA postseason. What a season Steve Bieser’s Tigers have put together.
Mizzou (33-16-1, 12-11-1 SEC) is up to No. 20 in Baseball America’s poll and No. 20 in the NCAA’s RPI. For a program that faces more challenges than any team in the SEC — weather, parking, fan support, geography, scholarships — for the Tigers to be ranked among the nation’s top 20 teams this deep into the season is nothing short of remarkable.
If the SEC tournament started this week, the Tigers would be the seventh seed. That’s incredible, considering the Tigers were picked to finish seventh (dead last) in the SEC East Division.
This weekend’s series at Tennessee was especially impressive. The Tigers lost Friday’s game 11-5 when the Volunteers got to Bieser’s usually impregnable bullpen. Rough start.
Bad luck struck on Saturday when a two-hour rain delay in the third inning forced Bieser to sit down ace starter T.J. Sikkema, who hadn’t allowed a run through his first tour through the lineup. The lineup and the bullpen made up for it: Catcher Chad McDaniel delivered a three-run homer in the sixth that gave Bieser’s relief corps enough protection in a 6-2 win.
Then on Sunday, with weekend starter Tyler LaPlante still nursing a sore forearm, Bieser went with Jordan Gubelman and the Vols tagged him for four runs in the first, all unearned thanks to a throwing error by third baseman Paul Gomez. In the second, a three-run homer pushed the Vols in front 7-0.
In the third, the Tigers answered with a touchdown of their own: walk, walk, triple, sac fly, walk, single, single, home run. Just like that, 7-7. Making up for his costly error earlier, it was Gomez who smoked the game-tying homer. He wasn’t done. Later the Californian made a diving stop at third and in the eighth crushed another two-run homer for the go-ahead runs in a 10-8 win. Oh and guess who got the final seven outs to earn the win: Sikkema, a day after weather cut short his 34-pitch start.
“I definitely knew we weren't going to give up,” Bieser said after the win. “We gave up seven early but knew there was a lot of game left and a lot could happen. We had to stay the course and hang in there tough. We had to find a way to scratch some runs. These Sunday special games we've played the last couple of weeks take a lot out of a coaching staff. It says a lot about this club. Their resiliency, toughness and never say die attitude. They don't give in and they just keep playing."
Gomez has been an incredible story for the Tigers this year. Heading into the season, Bieser envisioned the second-year junior college transfer being a backup middle infielder — but not a starter. Austin James was penciled in as MU’s third baseman. But James struggled at the plate early and that created chances for Gomez. He seized on the opportunity. He’s moved from the bottom of Bieser’s lineup to leadoff.
“The guy who held us together through some offensive struggles is Paul Gomez,” Bieser said last week. “Nobody in our program expected him to be an everyday player. We saw him as a very good complimentary player, a defensive replacement, some insurance behind Chris (Cornelius at shortstop). But you give him a little opportunity and he succeeds and you give him another one and he does it again. All of a sudden he becomes your most clutch hitter in conference play. You look at his numbers and he didn’t get the opportunity to hit nonconference opponents. All his numbers have come in conference play. He’s just helped solidify our lineup.”
After Sunday’s game, Bieser added, “I'm really proud of the ball player he has become his senior year. He epitomizes what Mizzou baseball is. I'd take a full roster of guys like him.”
• Remember when everyone clamored for Barry Odom to get a contract extension when he had two years left on his original deal? If the baseball Tigers make an NCAA regional — more on that shortly — is it time to talk extension for Bieser, too? After this season he’s got two years left on his original five-year deal, a contract that pays him a guaranteed $300,000 a year. How’s that rate in the SEC? Peanuts. When Tennessee hired former Mizzou assistant coach Tony Vitello two years ago, he inked a five-year deal that pays an average of $493K per year — despite zero head-coaching experience when he took the job.
Bieser is a Missouri guy, grew up in Ste. Genevieve, has coached in St. Louis (Vianney High), Cape Girardeau (SEMO) and now Columbia. But if he can guide this program into the top 20 and a No. 7 seed in the SEC tourney, you can bet other schools with more dollars (and more fans) have taken notice.
And don't forget, unless the NCAA appeals committee overturns the sanctions, Bieser's team will face a postseason ban, probably for 2020, for sins committed before he took the job at Mizzou. If/ when the Tigers miss the 2020 postseason because of the sanctions, that won't be Bieser's fault. If/when recruiting and scholarship reductions undercut his roster-building efforts, that shouldn't be held against him either.
Mizzou doesn't have a lot of money to throw around for the non-revenue grossing teams, but for all the heavy lifting he's done WHILE absorbing sanctions for violations that occurred before his watch, you can make a strong case Bieser has earned a show of faith from the administration.
To underscore that point, Bieser should be a strong contender for SEC coach of the year, an honor that will earn him only 2 percent of his base salary, which amounts to $4,200. He’ll get another $25K if the Tigers make an NCAA regional.
• How possible is a regional? Very. Mizzou has two series left, this weekend at No. 2 Vanderbilt (18-6 SEC) and then the home finale series against underperforming Florida (9-15).
Since the SEC expanded to 14 teams with the 2013 season, only two teams have ever finished .500 in SEC regular-season play and failed to make an NCAA regional: Mizzou in 2015 and Kentucky in 2016. In the past six years, 11 SEC teams finished .500 or worse in conference play and still made an NCAA regional.
Nine teams have won at least 13 conference games and missed on an NCAA regional, including Mizzou in 2017, when the Tigers were 14-16.
Fourteen might be the magic number. Only four SEC teams the last six seasons won 14 conference games and missed on a regional. More teams (seven) have made a regional with only 13 or 14 conference wins.
Once in a regional, Mizzou has the pitching depth to make an extended stay and challenge a No. 1 host seed. The Tigers have already won series against nationally ranked teams LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee and split a series against Texas A&M.
“I’m certain there’s nobody who wants to see us in their regional because of the pitching staff we have,” Bieser said last week. “Any given weekend we can knock off anybody across the country.”
• Next up, Vanderbilt. The Tigers could live with a 1-2 weekend in Nashville. They’ll get an RPI boost from playing the Commodores, regardless how the games unfold. That leaves the Florida series. It’s a biggie. I touched on this in Friday’s print story, but Bieser met with MU’s administration last week to discuss the Thursday-Friday-Saturday series, which falls on graduation weekend.
“If we put 2,000 people in the stands, which is not much by SEC standards, on any given day it’s an advantage for the Missouri baseball team,” Bieser said. “It’s smaller venue. It’s going to look packed. It’s going to have a lot of energy. The whole talk of the meeting was, ‘How do we get 2,000-plus people for three straight games against Florida?’ We know the implications that series will have. No matter what happens the next two weeks there’s going to be something on the line.
“We clamor for that support. We want that support. We know it’s been challenging. We’ve got to continue, from the administration, from marketing from our baseball program, we all have to get on the same page and really work hard to promote this sport at Missouri.”
I asked Bieser if he was satisfied with what he heard from his bosses in that meeting. Is everyone on the same page in terms of promoting the baseball program and building those crowds?
“You hear some good things, but I’m an action guy,” he said. “I want to see action. People say the culture is changing. We sense that. We feel that. There has to be action. It can’t be talk. If I’m dealing with just my players I’ll call them out that we need action. We can talk about all that stuff, but we need to do things that can help us. It takes time. it’s something we’re building toward. As we continue to have success we’ll continue to have more believers, more people that are willing to take more action for us.”
• Let’s not forget about the job Larissa Anderson has done in her first season running the Missouri softball program. The Tigers, picked last in the SEC preseason poll, finished the regular season 32-22 and 12-12 in the SEC. Mizzou is the seventh seed in this week’s SEC tournament at Texas A&M and open play Wednesday against No. 10 seed Auburn. The Tigers nearly swept No. 16 South Carolina this weekend before dropping Sunday’s home finale.
This was a program that has undergone two coaching changes in the last 15 months and lost a handful of impact players who transferred but is still in position to make another NCAA regional appearance. The Tigers are No. 30 in the latest RPI.
• Last week we broke down where former Mizzou football players will call home in the NFL — for now — and now we’ve got some jersey numbers for the rookie class:
DE Terry Beckner Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers, No. 73
WR Emanuel Hall, Chicago Bears, No. 85
OT Paul Adams, New York Giants, No. 79
Starting Tuesday teams can sign unrestricted free agents without counting against the compensatory pick formula, which means there could finally be some movement on Shane Ray’s free agency. The former Bronco has met with the Raiders, Colts and Seahawks, according to multiple reports.
• Here’s where Jontay Porter lands in some recently updated NBA mock drafts:
NBAdraft.net: Orlando Magic, No. 46 (second round)
ESPN.com: Minnesota Timberwolves, No. 43 (second round)
The Athletic: Minnesota Timberwolves, No. 43 (second round)
There is no set roster structure for second-round draft picks, but based on recent history, a player taken in the middle of the second round would most likely receive a guaranteed contract for at least one season. In Porter’s case, a player coming off a serious injury that could require up to a year of recovery there would most certainly be some contractual language to address any time off he might need heading into the league. Porter and his agent will have the next few months to meet with teams to discuss those scenarios. It was reported earlier that he’s been invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago (May 15-19), where he won’t be able to take part in physical drills but can meet with teams.
• Meanwhile, what does Cuonzo Martin do with his available scholarships? Kobe Brown, an unsigned three-star, 6-7 forward from Alabama who came back on the market after Texas A&M’s head-coaching change, plans to announce his final four schools on Tuesday. He recently visited Penn State. Martin has reportedly made in home-visits along with Virginia Tech. Vanderbilt has expressed interest under new coach Jerry Stackhouse. Should Brown pick Mizzou, he figures to be the final piece of Martin’s 2019 class.