Tiger baseball steps into the SEC

On Friday, the Missouri Tigers open the 2013 baseball season at No. 23 Southern Mississippi at 4:00 p.m. in Hattiesburg, MS. The reigning Big 12 Tournament Champion Tigers begin play with plenty of new faces to go with some veterans. Conference play opens up March 17th against the defending College World Series Runner-Up South Carolina Gamecocks at Taylor Stadium.
The infield group contains many new faces. The lone returning starter is junior Dillon Everett. Everett seems poised, at least for Opening Day, to start at shortstop and will anchor the middle of the infield.
"We've got a lot of great guys this year, but a lot of new guys too. So, I think it's my job to show them the ropes, and be a leader on and off the field," Everett said.
As of Thursday, the names around Everett remain somewhat uncertain going into Friday's game. Junior college transfers Shane Segovia and Keaton Steele figure to be a part of the group, but Segovia is currently hampered by a hamstring injury. Steele, the likely starter at first base, won MVP honors of the NJCAA National Tournament after leading Iowa Western Community College to the 2012 title, batting .389 with four RBI, one homer and two saves on the mound.
Junior Mike McGraw, a bright spot in the Tigers' stretch run to the conference tournament title, will compete with junior Gavin Stark for time at first base when Steele is slotted elsewhere.
Despite the new faces and uncertain infield, junior Tiger pitcher Rob Zastryzny believes this infield is "probably the best defensive team I have ever been on."
Behind the plate, the Tigers part ways with last year's vocal team leader, Ben Turner, whom Zastryzny referred to as a "rock" behind the plate. Senior Justin Byrd, junior Dylan Kelly, and sophomore Jake Ivory will compete for time at catcher.
The Tigers boast a logjam of bodies fighting for the three outfield spots. Offensively, the 2013 team will be headlined by senior Dane Opel, who led the Big 12 in home runs last season.
Other probable starters in the outfield include some combination of seniors Scott Sommerfeld and Brannon Champagne and junior Sal Belfonte.
"We have a lot of really good, hitting outfielders. It is going to be hard to find just three to play at the same time," Opel said.
Indeed, four Tiger outfielders started 10 games or more last season. Sommerfeld led the Tigers in batting average in 2012 (.312) while boasting a perfect fielding percentage. Champagne tied a school record by reaching base safely 32 games in a row. Belfonte functions as one of the team's best overall athletes, stealing four bases in 2012 in limited attempts.
"We will probably have the [designated hitter] that is also an outfielder. So really, we will probably have four outfielders hitting in the line-up at the same time," Opel said.
Starting Pitching
The pitching staff may prove to be the strongest unit on the 2013 Mizzou team. While Zastryzny is locked into the Friday night starter spot, six or seven other pitchers are competing for the other rotation jobs according to Manager Tim Jamieson.
"We are really deep [in the pitching staff]. We are pretty confident in a lot of different guys out there," Everett said.
Zastryzny, last season's Friday night starter' seems poised for a big year after an up and down 2012 campaign.
"My problem my entire life… is that you never knew what you were going to get," Zastryzny said. "I can [now] go out everyday and have the same outing."
According to Everett, Zastryzny put a lot of time and effort into being consistent. That work has caught the attention of the team.
"He's got that swag going into the season," Everett said of his former roommate.
"Everything [Zastryzny] has done has gotten better. There is not one thing about his game that hasn't improved since last year," Jamieson said. "It's going to be real exciting to see how good he can be and to see how he measures up to [Max] Sherzer, [Aaron] Crow, [Kyle] Gibson. He could be right there with them."
Junior Eric Anderson, sidelined nearly all of 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, will likely fill in one of the other starting spots when ready.
"[Anderson] could probably pitch this weekend but I think it would be putting the cart ahead of the horse right now with him," Jamieson said.
Anderson was the team's number one starter before injuring his shoulder after just three starts last spring. In the summer of 2011, Anderson pitched for Team USA in the Cape Cod league, leading Team USA in wins (two) and ERA (0.00).
Other pitchers that will figure into the starting mix include sophomores Jace James and John Miles.
When it comes to the late innings, the Tiger bullpen also has some strong arms.
Keeton Steele and Jake Walsh "are phenomenal in the pen," according to Zastryzny. "Even when their stuff is not on, you can't tell because they are fierce. I wouldn't want to face them in the last couple innings because they are crazy."
Figuring somewhere in the pitching equation, though not clear where, will be freshman pitcher Alec Rash. Rash, a second round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies, was the highest drafted player not to sign with a professional team. Rash may not be totally ready physically on opening day, but that does not mean he will not be a big factor this year.
"Mentally, that kid is just a rock. He is not scared of anyone, not scared of any situation. He puts his mindset that every time he pitches that he is throwing in front of 20,000 people because that is what he wants," Zastryzny said. "He has the most incredible arm I have ever seen in my life."
New Conference
Much was made of the Tiger football team's move into the best football conference in the land, but the Southeastern Conference is equally formidable in baseball.
"This conference is the best in the country. Obviously, it will be a higher level of play but we have high expectations," Everett said.
Ten of the conference's fourteen teams are ranked in the preseason poll. All fourteen teams received votes for the top-40.
"The way coach [Jamieson] explained it to us, in the Big 12, you always had those two or three big weekends where you play Texas or Texas A&M," Opel said. "Well now there, are going to be 10 Texas or Texas A&Ms."
Heading into a better baseball conference means going into bigger stadiums, and in turn, more hostile environments.
"When we play on the road, it will be us against thousands and I wouldn't want it any other way," Belfonte said.
Missouri's players welcome the challenge. And, in the end, "It's still nine guys and a diamond," Everett said.
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