COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri baseball is closing in on its first NCAA Regional appearance since 2012 and since moving to the Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers leaped to No. 20 nationally in Baseball America’s most recent poll after taking two of three from Tennessee on the road last weekend, giving Mizzou a 1 1/2 game lead for third place in the SEC East.
“Making the regional would be pretty special,” Tigers pitcher TJ Sikkema said. “We know the history and we know we haven’t been there in a while. We wanted to be the team that breaks the streak. We’ve talked ever since (MU coach Steve) Bieser started here, we’re going to be the class that gets it done."
But the Tigers (33-16-1, 12-11-1 SEC) aren't a lock for the national tournament just yet. The good news is, Missouri has already clinched a spot in the SEC Tournament, two weekends ahead of schedule from a season ago. Yet, future opponents don’t get any easier. The Tigers face No. 2 Vanderbilt in Nashville this weekend in a three-game series, then close out the regular season with a home series against Florida.
Winning two games against the Commodores seemingly would make the Tigers near locks for a postseason appearance, but they should still feel pretty good if they take the series against Florida.
“We’re right there. It’s where we need to be,” Bieser said. “We’re at the point where we don’t have to watch what other teams are doing right now.”
With just more than three weeks before the Major League Baseball Draft, no Missouri player has seen his pro stock rise more than Sikkema. Sikkema, ranked the No. 55 draft prospect by MLBPipeline.com, hasn't allowed a run in his last three appearances.
The junior, a DeWitt, Iowa, native, tossed seven no-hit innings against South Carolina on April 27, then threw five combined scoreless innings over two days against the Volunteers. In those 12 innings, Sikkema allowed three hits and struck out 16 batters. In 73 2/3 innings this season, Sikkema has struck out 87 batters and pitched to a 1.22 ERA.
Sikkema had his Saturday start against Tennessee shortened because of a nearly two-hour rain delay, but told Bieser he was willing to pitch out of the bullpen the next day if needed, as long as the game was close. He shut the door on the Volunteers on Sunday, getting the final seven outs of MU's 10-8 win.
“There’s no situation that’s foreign to him,” Bieser said. “His freshman year he served as a stopper, coming in starting in the third inning and eating some innings. Or coming in for a save opportunity. There’s not a situation that will put him in a spot where he hasn’t done this before.”
Sikkema’s next start will come against Vanderbilt’s JJ Bleday, the nation’s leader in home runs with 23.
“I mean, it’s just another guy for me,” Sikkema said. “I know he has some accolades and a pretty good bat, but I think we know him well and we’ll be able to pitch him pretty well.”
While Sikkema isn't considered a first-round MLB talent, he shouldn't wait long to hear his name called, with projections for the 6-foot left-hander ranging from a late second-round pick to an early third-rounder.
“I understand it’s coming in the very near future," Sikkema said. "And it’s exciting. But right now I need to focus on playing for my team and I can only do so much. I’m going to be here and help my guys out. I know it’s coming, but I also have a job to do here.”
There are still six games remaining for the Tigers in the regular season, but Missouri has already set a single-season program record with 96 stolen bases on the year.
Outfielder Kameron Misner leads the team with 19 stolen bases on 20 attempts, while catcher Chad McDaniel is 15-for-20. No other Missouri player has steal totals in the double digits, but 13 different players have swiped at least three bases.
“We’re taking more chances,” Bieser said. “My thing is, you want them to be aggressive, but you want to steal them at an 80 percent clip. That was our design by our personnel. It distracts the pitcher and gives us a chance in the box. We’ll live and die by putting pressure on the opposing pitcher."
As a team, the Tigers are 96-for-122 in stolen base attempts, giving them about a 78 percent success rate.