The atmosphere certainly matched the occasion – with a pregame rally, fireworks and a crowd of 3,145 in attendance to see the Missouri baseball team make its Southeastern Conference debut on Friday night.
For the better side of the evening, the Tigers matched the excitement on the field and played like they belonged in the powerhouse SEC, though similar mistakes eventually sank them against No. 5 South Carolina (16-2, 1-0 SEC).
Missouri (5-8, 0-1 SEC) committed two errors in a pivotal sixth inning and dropped its first conference game by a score of 4-1 at the hands of a South Carolina squad that has made NCAA College World Series Finals appearances in each of the past three seasons.
In the sixth inning, MU first baseman Josh Lester was unable to field a hard-hit ground ball near the first base bag, which allowed USC’s Max Schrock to reach base. Gamecocks right fielder Connor Bright then lined a ball to second base that Missouri’s Kendall Keeton couldn’t quite grasp, setting up the visitors with two on base and none out.
Missouri starting pitcher Rob Zastryzny was able to get the next two men out, but a single by South Carolina’s TJ Costen with two outs and two strikes scored both runners and took the air out of an excited crowd. The big hit also squashed any momentum Zastryzny had going prior to the lead-widening base hit.
“That’s my job to get out of that, really.” Zastryzny said of the tense, two-error sixth inning. “I make one better pitch right, and we’re out of that inning with no runs. That’s something I should learn from and I’m going to.”
Because of the errors, the runs were unearned on Zastryzny’s record. Missouri’s top starter still managed to record his second consecutive strong outing, despite the pressure and hype surrounding the SEC debut as well as facing South Carolina’s perennial lineup. Zastryzny finished after seven innings pitched, allowing four hits, two walks and two earned runs to score on top of the two sixth inning runs. He struck out 10 batters for the second straight game.
Zastryzny also allowed a run in the third inning, when a solo home run by South Carolina catcher Grayson Greiner opened up the game’s scoring; and another in the fifth on a Joey Pankake run-scoring single.
Opposite Zastryzny on the pitching line was South Carolina’s Evan Beal, who was even better on the mound. Beal gave up his first run of the 2013 season on a Logan Pearson double that scored Kendall Keeton for Missouri’s only run in the fifth inning, but was otherwise strong in key situations.
Beal secured the win and finished with a line of six and one-third innings pitched, eight hits allowed, 10 strikeouts and 10 stranded Missouri runners – many of them left on base in scoring position.
Missouri will now play both its second and third SEC games on Saturday, as poor weather in the forecast for Sunday has set up a doubleheader with South Carolina. Starting pitcher Brett Graves will be on the mound for the Tigers in Game 1 on Saturday, which will start at 2 p.m. at Taylor Stadium.