ESPN descended on Lincoln, Neb., over the weekend to show Texas against Nebraska in a key Big 12 Conference matchup. The series featured the nation's No. 1 team (Texas), Division I baseball's winningest coach (Augie Garrido), college baseball's top draft prospect (Nebraska's Alex Gordon) and 22,595 fans.
When the series ended, Texas sat at 6-5 in the Big 12 and Nebraska was 6-3. Both were looking up at Missouri, which sits atop the Big 12 at 8-1 and has won 18 of its last 20 games. That success earned the Tigers a No. 13 ranking this week. Not bad for a team the conference coaches picked to finish ninth in the preseason.
"I'm not really sure what we need to do to be a consistent program," Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said, "but our respect seems to come in the spring rather than the fall."
No one was sure what to make of Missouri entering the year. The Tigers finished sixth in the Big 12 last year, earning an NCAA Tournament berth following a spirited run to the conference tournament final behind a senior-laden team led by starting pitchers Garrett Broshuis and Danny Hill and lineup stalwarts Cody Ehlers, Lee Laskowski and Brad Flanders.
There still was no consensus after Missouri rang up double-digit run totals in 16 of its first 25 games because its opponents included the likes of Eastern Michigan, Illinois State, Youngstown State and North Dakota State.
But a 25-0 win against Texas Tech — in which the Tigers also threw a no-hitter — and a sweep of Texas A&M over the weekend made a resounding statement. It was one Jamieson had made much earlier.
"I really felt that in the fall we were going to be better than last year," he said. "I knew we had the pitching. Talent-wise we are better. When we beat [lesser] teams, we weren't just beating them 6-5; we were beating the crap out of them. That was some disparity there. I knew our pitching could shut people down."
Jamieson's belief in talented but unproven 6-foot-2 right-handers Max Scherzer and Doug Mathis were two main reasons. Scherzer, a sophomore, showed electric stuff out of the bullpen as a freshman and then as a closer in the Northwoods League. Mathis, a junior transfer from Central Arizona JC, needed to prove he could replicate his 13-3, 1.35 numbers at the Division I level.
Both have made smooth shifts to Missouri's rotation, keying the team's 2.60 overall ERA and 271-79 strikeout-walk ratio.
Scherzer has built up the stamina to hold the velocity on his upper-90s fastball late into games and throws a hard slider in the mid-80s. He's gone 6-1, with a 1.03 ERA, 77 strikeouts and 18 walks in 52 innings.
At times he throws nothing but fastballs because the life and deception he creates make the pitch difficult to hit even when batters are looking for it. Scherzer threw 35 straight fastballs at one point Friday in a three-hit complete game against Texas A&M in which he struck out nine and allowed a run and two walks.
Mathis has settled into the Sunday role, where he succeeds with an 89-92 mph fastball and slider combination. He's gone 3-2, 1.90 with 43 strikeouts and eight walks in 43 innings.
The offense stresses a patient approach that has resulted in a strikeout-walk ratio nearly the opposite of the pitching staff's. The Tigers have 231 walks and 71 hit batsmen against 218 strikeouts. That computes to a .448 on-base percentage and 10.4 runs per game.
And Jamieson sees that getting better. He said his team didn't start hitting well in conference play until this weekend against Texas A&M. The batters needed to adjust to seeing upper-80s and lower-90s fastballs and better breaking balls after facing weaker arms early on. More of those type of games are ahead, with Texas, Nebraska and Baylor on the schedule for three of the final four weekends of conference play.
"That's really going to define the kind of year we have in conference," Jamieson said. "I still think our best baseball is ahead of us. We've experienced conference the last two weekends, grinding it out. We weren't ready to face the pitching we saw. We didn't play enough quality opponents early, but we're getting there now."
Around the Nation
• Evansville junior right-hander Fred Jones threw a seven-inning no-hitter Sunday in a 10-0 win against Northern Iowa. He struck out 10, including seven of the last 10 batters, and didn't allow a ball out of the infield after the second inning.
• Ohio junior right-hander Anthony Gressick struck out a career-best 15 batters in 8 1/3 innings Saturday to earn a win against Eastern Michigan.
• Penn State junior left-hander Alan Stidfole struck out a career-high 13 batters against Northwestern in throwing his second straight complete-game shutout. He hasn't allowed a run in 30 innings. His twin brother Sean leads the Big Ten with 52 strikeouts.
• Wichita State junior right-hander Mike Pelfrey took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against Illinois State on Friday and finished with the third one-hitter in school history. He struck out 10 batters, the fourth straight game he has recorded double-figures in K's.
• Minnesota senior Matt Loberg has thrown 25 straight scoreless innings following a complete-game shutout against Indiana on Friday.
• Austin Peay junior left-hander Rowdy Hardy threw his second straight complete-game shutout Saturday against Tennessee Tech to run his scoreless innings streak to 21.
• Utah set school and Mountain West Conference records with 32 runs and 34 hits in a 32-4 drubbing of Air Force Saturday. The previous MWC marks were 28 hits and 31 runs, while the old Utah records of 30 runs and 29 hits (set while in the WAC) also fell.
• Alabama sophomore left-hander Wade LeBlanc will start Tuesday against Memphis. It marks the first appearance for BA's 2004 Freshman of the Year since he sprained his shoulder March 11. LeBlanc will throw a limited number of pitches and could start against Florida this weekend if things go well.
• Coastal Carolina junior right-hander Mike Costanzo gave up his first earned run of the season in the 7-6 win Sunday against Radford. The Chanticleers closer now has an ERA — it's 0.29 — to go along with his eight saves.
• Oral Roberts senior right-hander Dennis Bigley set a Mid-Continent Conference and school record by earning his 35th win with a seven-inning complete-game one-hitter Saturday in a 4-0 win against Southern Utah.
• Western New England College senior outfielder Chris Mahoney produced a 43-game hit streak, which ended April 4 against the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Mahoney produced the hitting streak in the Division III GNAC (Great Northeast Athletic Conference), which plays seven-inning doubleheaders.
• Mary Washington (Va.) College junior right-hander Kevin Foeman set the school win record with No. 24 against Catholic University. He's 8-0, 1.30 with 77 strikeouts and 25 walks in 69 innings this year and rates as one of Division III's top draft prospects.
• Former TCU coach Lance Brown joined Texas Tech's staff as volunteer pitching coach. The Red Raiders' previous pitching coach, Travis Walden, had resigned. Brown coached the Horned Frogs for 17 seasons, posting a 517-471 record.
• Rio Hondo (Calif.) JC right-hander Kenny Maiques threw his second seven-inning perfect game in less than a month Saturday against Chaffey. He struck out 13 batters and allowed just two balls to leave the infield by using a 91-94 mph fastball and low-80s slider.
"He's just dialed in right now," Rio Hondo coach Mike Salazar said. "His slider is just filthy." Maiques also was perfect March 26 agaisnt Mount San Jacinto. The Long Beach State transfer helped lead Rio Hondo to a 14-1 start in conference play, and has signed with South Carolina for 2005.
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