It feels so very long ago that the dawn of the Missouri baseball season was upon us. Somehow, someway, the weather in Columbia has remained bitter two weeks into April, but so much else has changed within the complexion of the Tigers.
No longer is Connor Brumfield the leadoff man, as he has dropped further down the lineup. After floating around a .450 average through the first month and then falling into a deep slump, Brian Sharp has settled into a solid .292/.394/.425 triple-slash. Sharp’s season has been erratic on multiple accounts, as he’s seen time on the mound and has moved into a somewhat permanent role at first base after spending the beginning of the year at third.
The opening weekend rotation of Bryce Montes de Oca / Michael Plassmeyer / Andy Toelken was shifted to a rotation of T.J. Sikkema / Plassmeyer / Montes de Oca, and Toelken has found success in the back-end of the bullpen. Jordan Gubelman has emerged as a key bullpen piece with a 2.76 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 16.1 innings.
While the main pillars of the Missouri team — players like Kameron Misner, Trey Harris, Brett Bond — have been consistent, the margins of the roster have been in flux since February. Left-fielder Zach Hanna has witnessed this reality all season.
With the potent offensive seasons Misner and Harris have had, it’s peculiar when recalling that it was Hanna who tallied the Tigers’ first home run of the year. On a sunny, 74-degree, mid-February game in Miami, Florida, against FIU, Hanna sliced an opposite-field fly ball for Missouri’s first run and dinger of the season in the sixth inning.
A year ago, this was commonplace for Hanna. As a pitcher and hitter at Iowa Western CC, he earned First-Team All-Conference honors last year. He hit .367 with six home runs and 48 RBI, went 1-0 on the mound with five strikeouts and led his team to fourth place in the JUCO World Series. He had 14 career home runs there. Hanna was more than deserving of a roster spot on Missouri, and he was part of the Tigers’ lineup right away.
After hitting that home run in game one, Hanna saw at least four at bats in five of the next six games. Coach Steve Bieser saw him as a valuable asset for the offense. The only thing is, he didn’t hit. Through the Tigers’ first ten games, Hanna hit .272 but had walked just three times and had three extra base hits.
As the season grew longer, Hanna’s playing time shortened and his production suffered. After receiving four at bats in each of the four games against Northeastern, Hanna got four at bats in just seven of the next 22 games. Through April 7, the outfielder was hitting just .246 with 12 runs, four extra-base hits and 17 RBI in 73 at bats.
Brumfield began starting more in left field, with Misner in center and Harris in right. Hanna’s role had diminished from starting left-fielder to serviceable pinch-hitter. If anyone was in need of a hot week, it was him.
So when Hanna got the start in left against Missouri State on April 10, he made sure he wouldn’t waste it. After giving the Tigers their first two runs on a 2-RBI single in the first, Hanna hit his second home run of the season and first in nearly two months in the third. It was his first three-RBI game since February 18, and he scored three times.
What’s more, Hanna made one of the catches of the year in left field in the fifth when he made a sprawling catch against the wall to catch a Missouri State fly ball that would have given the Bears the lead. Hanna’s defense has been solid all year, with his only error coming last Saturday against Florida.
Missouri was beat swept soundly at Florida, being outscored 20-5 by the Gators. While there were few silver linings from the weekend, Hanna was one of them, as he went 3-9 in the series with two doubles and two RBI.
In the midst of a season defined by fluidity and at times instability, Hanna has managed to scrape together a respectable triple-slash of .271/.390/.424. He’s walked 14 times this year — more than Bond and Chris Cornelius, who both have more at bats — and his strikeout rate is around 20 percent, which is great.
With Brumfield hitting .217/.325/.245 with just three extra-base hits this year and considering Hanna’s advancements at the plate as of late, expect to see Hanna in the lineup more as he’s now proved his offensive worth, to a degree. Missouri has averaged 1.88 runs over its past nine SEC games, so it’ll need offense wherever it can find it.