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February 16, 2011

Looking for redemption

The first pitch of the 2011 season is a couple days away, but the Missouri baseball team already has some bulletin board material.

When perfectgame.org projected the Big 12 standings on Saturday, it placed the Tigers last. Now, whenever Missouri walks into its locker room, they see that flashed up on a video screen.

Game on.

"I love being the underdog," sophomore outfielder Blake Brown said. "I think it's great because it gives us an advantage. We can go all out and if we fail, so what. It's what we were supposed to do. But when we succeed, everybody's going to be surprised and they're just going to be all over us. It's going to be a great feeling."

When the Tigers take the field against USC on Friday night in Los Angeles, it will be with something to prove. Missouri finished eighth in the Big 12 last season with an overall record of 29-26 and a 10-16 mark in conference. The team failed to qualify for an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2002 and was swept in three games sets by Kansas and Texas.

The Preseason Big 12 Coaches Poll released Tuesday also had the Tigers last in the Big 12.

Missouri enters 2011 hungry and, according to coach Tim Jamieson, more mature.

"Last year at times when an individual struggled, it took away from the team," Jamieson said. "You still find a way to help the team, and I think that's part of the maturity and growth of a lot of the young guys."

The Tigers go into the season without Aaron Senne and Brett Nicholas, who were Missouri's top two in hits, home runs and batting average last season. Sophomore infielder Eric Garcia posted the highest bating average of all returning players with more than 100 at-bats last year (.288), and junior outfielder Ryan Gebhart returns after hitting .328 in limited action last season.

Senior catcher Ryan Ampleman, sophomore outfielder Dane Opel, senior outfielder Jonah Schmidt and Brown are among the returning position players with the most starts last season.

Missouri has to replace Nick Tepesch in its starting rotation - he was selected by the Texas Rangers in the MLB Draft.

Jamieson said the plan going into the opening weekends of the season is for junior Matt Stites to start on Fridays, freshman Rob Zastryzny to start on Saturdays and senior Zack Hardoin to start on Sundays. Hardoin made 25 appearances last season, 23 of which were from the bullpen.

Last season's team ERA leader senior Kelly Fick returns to the pitching staff, along with senior Phil McCormick who made a school-record 36 appearances in 2010.

The Tigers start their mission of redemption 8 p.m. Friday against the Trojans in the USC Tournament, and will also face Cal Poly and North Carolina on the weekend.

The new edition of the Tigers will be closer than last year's, according to Brown.

"We hang out a lot more off the field," Brown said. "You see us all together more often. On the field, the communication is better. We have a good feel for each other and what we can do with our abilities."

Nevertheless, there are still trying moments from last season that jab at some players. Last week the team sent out messages on its Twitter page including the hashtag #redemptionin11.

"I feel like we were a good enough team last year that getting looked upon as the worst team in the Big 12 isn't real just," Mach said. "I think for sure redemption can be anything from whooping up on the Big 12 teams and making a regional, a super regional and beyond."

Mach has no doubt the motivation will pay off once the season begins.

"It's going to be fun to surprise some people this year because, without a doubt, they're wrong," Mach said. "We're a good team, we're going to win some games."



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