COLUMBIA — A postseason ban has not put the Missouri baseball team off its plans this season.
Neither has the fact the team lost two of its best players to the first round of competitive balance picks in last summer's MLB draft: power-hitting and walk-drawing outfielder Kameron Misner went to the Miami Marlins with the 35th pick, and the Southeastern Conference's ERA leader LHP T.J. Sikkema went to the New York Yankees three slots later.
"Do we have goals? You bet," Missouri coach Steve Bieser said Tuesday. "We'd like to win 40 games, we'd like to win the SEC (regular-season title), there's a lot of things we have right now that's going to keep our focus on doing what we need to do."
The Tigers open the regular season — what they're considering the postseason — today with a three-game series at Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks were 39-23 last season, won the Ohio Valley Conference and earned an NCAA Tournament berth, and are a program Bieser is familiar with from his days coaching Southeast Missouri State, also in the OVC.
Missouri was picked to finish sixth in the SEC East by the league's coaches after finishing 13-16-1 in SEC play a year ago, fourth in the east and 10th overall. The Tigers didn't miss a postseason invitation by much, and despite missing some pieces from last season's squad, Bieser said he thinks this year's team has a better group of hitters, which makes the postseason ban sting more.
"Overall, from top to bottom offensively, we're a better offensive club right now than we've been opening up any of the first three seasons," Bieser said. "
Missouri's dedication to pairing next-generation technology that's ahead of most major league teams, with the nearly 30 years of experience and knowledge pitching coach Fred Corral brings to the staff, has overseen successive years of successful moves from bullpen to starting pitching roles, something Sikkema did a year ago.
That's the expectation for juniors Konnor Ash and Ian Bedell. Bedell was named to two preseason All-American teams as well as the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award preseason watch list. Ash tossed 53 innings with a 4.19 ERA in 23 appearances and two starts last year, and Bedell posted a 1.56 ERA in 40 innings across 18 appearances and one start.
"I'm just excited to get out there and compete with everybody," Ash said. "As far as pitching goes, we know what we can do pitching. Hitting, we've got a more aggressive line-up this year, I'm just excited about the hitters, really, excited to get out there and compete with everyone."
At the plate, the Tigers will rely on the experience of catcher Chad McDaniel, second baseman Mark Vierling and designated hitter Peter Zimmerman, while players in their first or second year with the program — like Luke Mann (third base) Austin James (shortstop) and first baseman Brandt Belk, who started in 74 games across the past two seasons at Pepperdine — will try to make their mark this year.
"I say he's a professional hitter," Bieser said of Belk. "He has an approach, he understands the game, he knows the situations and he's trying to execute to make the team better on that particular at-bat, and he's very good at that."
While the infield is likely set, the three outfield spots are up for grabs. Alex Peterson (left) Seth Halvorsen (center) and Thomas Broyles (right) were listed as the probable starters for this weekend's series, but Alex Peterson, Josh Holt and Jackson Lancaster could all see playing time in the outfield as well.
Halvorsen, also a right-handed pitcher, dealt with injury his freshman year and was limited to four appearances out of the bullpen before taking a medical redshirt. He will be limited to fielding duties but is expected to pitch this season. Bieser said lefty Trae Robertson had a first rib removed to correct pain he's had ever since he started pitching, and is also expected to be active for Missouri this season.
The probable starters for today's 3 p.m. first pitch include Bedell against LHP Dylan Hathcock (4.02 ERA in 65 innings, 16 starts last year). Ash will go against RHP Isaiah Magwood (4.85 ERA in 55 innings and nine starts last year) at 3 p.m. Saturday, and LHP Art Joven (4.33 ERA in 43 innings and nine starts in 2019) will start opposite JSU lefty Michael Gilliland (6.23 ERA in 34 innings and one start last year) at noon Sunday. All three games will be streamed via ESPN+.
The team follows that series with games against Kansas State, Utah and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi from Feb. 21-23 at the Kleberg Bank College Classic in Corpus Christi, Texas, and three games against former Big 12 opponents in Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas from Feb. 28-March 1 at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
Missouri opens at home against Western Illinois with a three-game weekend series March 6-8.