By Zach Garcia
The Missouri baseball team (11-17, 4-8 Southeastern Conference) cleared its most glaring weakness of the 2013 season over this past weekend, when it took two of three games from the Georgia Bulldogs (12-21, 2-10 SEC). Going into the series in Athens, Ga., Missouri had struggled on the road, posting a 1-10 record away from Taylor Stadium. The success as a visiting team comes at a pivotal time, as Missouri kept itself steady in the 11th spot of the SEC standings. Only the top 12 of the conference’s 14 teams will earn an invitation to the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala. in May.
Perhaps the most impressive facet of Missouri’s weekend triumph was the relatively clean form of play the team demonstrated on defense. The Tigers have struggled in the field for most of the season, and while room for improvement still exists after the team committed three errors over the three games against Georgia, it is a far cry from the five in Tuesday’s game against Illinois.
The Tigers also busted out the bats in a big way against the Bulldogs, finally lending support to a strong pitching staff. Catcher Dylan Kelly continues to lead the way for Missouri at the plate with a .347 batting average. Kelly notched five more hits in 10 at-bats over the weekend. Keaton Steele also had himself a big offensive weekend, slugging three extra base hits on six total hits, which included his first home run of the season. For his efforts, Steele was named the SEC Player of the Week. In total, Missouri scored 17 times on 29 hits in Athens.
Friday: Missouri 4, Georgia 0
Missouri starting pitcher Rob Zastryzny continued his strong season, turning in arguably his best performance of 2013 in pacing the Tigers to a smooth 4-0 win in the series opener. Zastryzny went the distance to throw his second complete game shutout of his career, and also went a full 9.0 innings for the second occasion this season (Zastryzny also threw a complete game in a 6-2 win over San Francisco on March 8). Zastryzny is now 2-5 this season, with a 2.88 earned run average (1.79 in SEC play). Keaton Steele hit a two-run home run in the fourth to open the scoring, and would be all Zastryzny needed to notch the win.
Saturday: Georgia 6, Missouri 5
Despite nearly coming back from a 5-0 deficit, Missouri fell short 6-5 on Saturday night in Athens. Starting pitcher Brett Graves failed to find a consistent groove in the outing, and departed after 3 1/3 innings that included five earned runs on seven hits. The Tigers still managed to get 10 hits in the loss, with Dylan Kelly, Keaton Steele and Kendall Keeton each getting two.
Sunday: Missouri 8, Georgia 5
Missouri flexed its comeback muscles once more on Sunday – and this time it resulted in a win. After Georgia bats chased freshman starting pitcher Alec Rash (1 1/3 innings pitched, seven hits and four runs) early, Keaton Steele eventually came on to out-will the Bulldogs offense. Steele pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowing just one run while striking out nine batters. On offense, Steele also paced the Tigers with two hits and three runs batted in. The biggest hit of the game for Missouri came off the bat of Dane Opel. After falling behind 5-0, Missouri worked its way back to a slim 5-4 deficit in the top of the ninth inning. Opel tripled to right field with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth to put the Tigers ahead for good in a series-clinching 8-5 win.
Quick hits from the weekend:
– Missouri’s hottest player is arguably junior transfer Keaton Steele. Steele hit for a .545 batting average during the weekend, which included two doubles and a home run on six hits, with three runs batted in. Steele also pitched a strong 7 1/3 innings in relief during Sunday’s game, allowing one run on four hits while striking out nine and enabling the Tigers to come back from a five-run deficit to win the game.
– Georgians make up the second most players on the Missouri roster, second only to 16 native Missouri players. Of the three, starting catcher Dylan Kelly had the best homecoming: going 5-for-14 at the plate with two runs batted in. Lester started all three games at first base, getting two hits in 11 at-bats, while McGraw did not see action.
– Missouri won its first road series since it traveled to Auburn, Ala. for a series February 17-19, 2012, and took two of three games against its future conference mate. That series was the first of the 2012 season for Missouri, which had dropped nine consecutive two-or-three game road series in between its Auburn and Georgia trips.
Missouri will look to continue its road success when they face a tough in-state contest at Missouri State (19-8) in Springfield, Mo. on Tuesday. The Bears are 9-1 at home this season, and will play host to the Tigers at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.