As Missouri baseball returns from a long hiatus, its roster remains intact and healthy heading into its first series

With a bulk of coach Steve Bieser’s roster returning, the Tigers get another crack at a loaded Southeastern Conference with a solid cadre of returners.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a swift end to the 2020 college baseball season. Now, almost a year later, Missouri baseball is finally in the midst of the first series of 2021 against Grand Canyon University.

While the lost season was a disappointment, it came at the worst time for the Tigers, who were in the midst of a seven-game winning streak heading into Southeastern Conference action.

Time will only tell if the Tigers can replicate the same energy they had going into conference play last season, but here is what The Maneater baseball staff knows so far.

11-month layoff

Missouri head coach Steve Bieser approached the extended hiatus with the “glass half-full” mindset.

“It gave us time to kind of recollect and start getting things even more organized,” Bieser said. “It always seemed it felt like we were rushing through things to try to get everybody on the same page, but we had a chance to step back.”

A prolonged offseason allowed Missouri to focus on building for the future, as coaches and players alike focused on preparation for a run at a regional berth for seasons to come.

Bieser, alongside Fred Corral, pitching coach and recruiting coordinator, and hitting coach Jason Hagerty, put the finishing touches on the 25th-ranked recruiting class for 2021. According to Baseball America, it’s Missouri’s highest-ranked class since 2014.

Since players returned to campus, they’ve only scrimmaged one another. Bieser’s squad made it through fall workouts without many COVID-19 related issues and only had a few hiccups transitioning back to campus after winter break.

“We got back here in January and we had a couple cases and traces that slowed us down,” Bieser said. “But right now, we're back to pretty much full strength from a COVID basis.”

Freshmen

There are a handful of Missouri players who should make a splash this year. That starts with the incoming freshman class, who Bieser holds in high regard.

Here are five freshmen that might just create the biggest waves:

CJ Cepicky, outfielder, St. John Vianney High School, St. Louis

Nephew of major leaguer Matt Cepicky, CJ is a big-arm outfielder with the ability to hit for average and power. Cepicky’s athleticism might be his best attribute as he ran a 6.67 60-yard dash out of high school.

Despite the speed, Cepicky isn’t small. Standing at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, he towers in the batter’s box and intimidates pitchers with his height. His ability to reach outside pitches should frustrate the opposition.

Zach Hise, right-handed pitcher, Joliet Catholic, Joliet, Ill.

The No. 12 overall prospect in the state of Illinois, according to Perfect Game USA, Hise is a tall, hard-throwing right-hander who should provide valuable innings all season long for the Tigers.

Hise topped out at 93 mph on his fastball and brings a silky-smooth slider that sits at 78-80 mph. Hise’s variety of pitches will prove fruitful this season and for his future as a Tiger.

“[Freshman pitchers] will be given their opportunities because they’re in a different position as a pitcher,” Bieser said. “They are going to get their two to three-inning opportunities and as they have those good three-inning opportunities, then they get four or five and maybe just keep building off that.”

Garrett Rice, corner infielder, Willard High School, Willard, Mo.

Garrett Rice comes to Bieser’s program with underrated athleticism and footwork around the first-base bag, where he will most likely be positioned. Rice carries a big stick as proven by his 100 mph exit velocity, and might be able to poke a few balls out of Taylor Stadium this spring.

Prep Baseball Report described Rice: “The ball jumps off the bat, he has a pull side power present.”

Parker Wright, right-handed pitcher, Rock Bridge High School, Columbia, Mo.

The fifth-overall prospect in Missouri’s 2020 class, Wright is a flame-throwing right-hander that is on the hunt for immediate innings in an already stacked rotation. Topping out at 96 mph, Wright has hard command of his fastball with the intent of blowing it by opposing hitters.

Ian Lohse, left-handed pitcher, Marquette High School, St. Louis

Ian Lohse chose to stay in-state and play for the team who he grew up cheering for. Left-handed pitchers can be a huge advantage for teams and specific matchups throughout the game.

Lohse is that guy. Lohse was the number-one left-handed pitching recruit in the state of Missouri and ranked as a top-100 pitching prospect in the nation.

Bieser expects Lohse and other freshmen to get some opportunities as the rotation takes shape.

Transfers

If there’s one thing Missouri’s young players lack, it’s experience. Unfortunately, Bieser can’t coach experience. Some players have that experience, but they gained it elsewhere. Here are a few of those players:

Torin Montgomery, sophomore infielder, formerly of Boise State

Montgomery started each of his 13 games he played for the Boise State Broncos last season, where he finished the shortened season top five in the conference in home runs.

As a freshman, Montgomery batted .308 with three home runs and brings the big bat and looks to fit right into the middle of the lineup for the Tigers.

Mike Coletta, junior catcher, formerly of Connors State Okla.

Coletta started hot in 2020, hitting .371 with four home runs and 31 runs batted in (RBI). He also knows how to get on base, achieving a .534 on-base percentage.

Behind the plate, Coletta recorded a 1.000 fielding percentage with 128 putouts and 19 assists.

Joshua Day, junior infielder, formerly of Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Miss.

6-foot-2 infielder Joshua (Josh) Day came to Columbia with the swagger necessary to compete in the SEC. With a smooth glove and an even smoother swing, baseball comes naturally to Day.

Hitting .267 at Copiah-Lincoln Community College (CLCC) in Wesson, Mississippi, Day made the jump to Missouri in hopes of continuing his success. He also added three home runs and 11 RBIs in 15 games with the Wolves.

Andrew Keefer, fifth-year infielder, formerly of UT - Arlington Utility man Andrew Keefer has bounced around the past few years. He started in 2017 at Weather College in Texas before going to Texas Christian University (TCU) for a season. Last season, Keefer spent 12 games at the University of Texas - Arlington before the season ended prematurely.

Listed as an infielder, Keefer spent 10 of his 12 games last season starting in right field. He brings experience and flexibility to a Tigers team in need of both.

Christian Long, fifth-year outfielder, formerly of Wake Forest

Christian Long, known as CLONGO by his teammates, wants to find a new beginning at Missouri. Long spent four years at Wake Forest and never really hit his stride.

He started 30 games in all three outfield positions in 2018 and finished with an average of .224. Long didn’t surpass .200 in each of his other three seasons.

Despite past struggles, Long is looking to break out this season for the Tigers and become a solid player for Missouri.

Offense

Since Bieser took over the team in 2017, Missouri’s offense routinely finished in the top half of the SEC in batting average and on-base percentage. However, the Tigers’ offense consistently struggles with both slugging percentage and runs scored, and fell into the lower half of the SEC in each of the last three seasons.

The two offensive categories could be related. Slugging percentage is the measurement of the average number of bases a team records in an at-bat. The higher the slugging percentage, the more runners who are in a position to score runs.

Putting runners on base consistently and creating tough outs deep in the lineup is essential to building a more powerful offense.

In his shortened first year with the Tigers, redshirt senior Brandt Belk led the team with a .457 batting average, which ranked third in the SEC. Belk and senior second basemen Mark Vierling, who finished last spring with a .297 batting average, will bat at the top of the lineup for Missouri.

“[Belk and Vierling] are the glue guys sitting right in the middle of our lineup,” Bieser said. “They know it's on them to be those glue guys day in and day out and make the rest of the lineup go, but it's gotta start toward the top.”

The possible catcher platoon duo of transfer Coletta and junior Battle High School alum Tre Morris rounds out the bottom of the lineup. Both had strong seasons at their respective universities. Morris played an expanded role with the Tigers last spring, appearing in five games in the shortened season.

“They are tough outs in a lineup and right now I'm thinking that they're hitting towards the bottom of our lineup,” Bieser said. “That's exciting to have some really tough outs at the bottom of your lineup because that hasn't been the case here over the last couple years. We've been a little soft at the bottom. I think we're just a little bit deeper overall.”

Missouri’s lineup depth gives Bieser confidence in his starting nine. In previous years, Bieser has had several platoon players and a competitive mix of players to find the best possibility for success in each situation.

“When you can get nine guys that know that they're everyday players and they're going to be able to get in the lineup every single day and go out and play, I think you see some freedom there,” Bieser said.

Pitching

Since collegiate baseball doesn’t have Spring Training like the major leagues, it’s difficult to get into game form solely from intrasquad scrimmages that happened in the fall.

The Tigers will have to figure out its rotation in a baptism-by-fire-esque doubleheader

Bieser and Corral prepare the staff for each weekend with a structured pitching routine that resembles how a major league pitcher would operate. The seven-day regimen is difficult to manage with all 55 players trying to cram into the Devine Pavilion while adhering to social distancing protocols.

“I will say just based on doing it for the first time, you know, most of our players aren't ready to be pros yet,” Bieser said. “But we challenged them to that seven-day routine of just being really strict to what they need to do to prepare.”

With three Saturday doubleheaders in the mix, Bieser indicated there would be some shorter appearances on the mound for some of Missouri’s starters as they work their way into action against real opponents.

“What we will see a lot early is some three-inning guys and some four-inning guys,” Bieser said. You may not see the typical six, seven, eight-inning type of guy early on. We're going to give guys that have earned the opportunity to come in and throw the opportunity to do just that.”

Bieser gave sophomore right-hand pitcher Spencer Miles the start for the Tigers Friday night. The hometown kid who attended Rock Bridge High School went 5 1/3 innings, giving up seven runs on nine hits with only three strikeouts.

Despite the loss, Bieser followed through on his promise to play younger pitchers. All four pitchers who took the mound for the Tigers on Friday were a sophomore or younger.

The rest of the staff around Miles looks nearly the same as it did last year. Right-hander Ian Bedell’s departure for the MLB leaves an opening at the top of the starting rotation, but the Tigers are in good hands with 12 returning pitchers and seven freshmen who could work their way into the rotation during non-conference play.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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