Missouri State struggled through a 26-31 season in 2014, finishing sixth in the Missouri Valley with a 9-12 conference record. A meek offense was the primary culprit; the Bears finished 209th in the nation in batting (.259) and 179th in scoring (4.7 runs per game), but they didn’t perform up to their potential on the mound, either (3.73 staff ERA, 107th in the country).
The Bears are a little older and a little wiser now. They are loaded with seasoned upperclassmen who know what losing feels like who want 2015 to be different. This is a talented team capable of making the NCAA tournament, and the players know it.
“We came off a rough year last year when we really didn’t do much offensively,” said longtime Missouri State pitching coach Paul Evans. “This team has higher expectations, the leadership is good. Guys have changed some things offensively, better approaches. I don’t think they were happy with the way things turned out last year — none of us were. Having an older group, these guys are going into their last year or draft year in some cases, these guys are a lot more committed. They’ve worked extremely hard in the weight room and leading up to the season. When you put in that kind of hard work and get off to a good start, that’s a good mix.”
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And the Bears got off to a great start this weekend, going 3-0 in a tournament at Stephen F. Austin. They played well in all phases of the game and pitched particularly well, allowing just six runs in three games against Texas-Arlington, Stephen F. Austin and Washington State. One opposing coach who saw Missouri State this weekend called them “legit.”
“[They have a] deep lineup of all type of hitters,” the coach said. “Good approach at the plate. A real guy Friday [on the mound], and a good lefthander Saturday. It’s tough to not see them be there at the end of the year.”
The Bears are projected by D1Baseball.com to finish third in the MVC heading into the year, just outside the NCAA tournament, but with their combination of front-line talent, depth and experience, they should be a real threat to win the league.
Missouri State has a pair of players with chances to be drafted in the top two to three rounds this June in junior outfielder Tate Matheny and junior righthander Jon Harris. Matheny, the son of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, was one of the Valley’s best players last year, hitting .330/.421/.528 while showing above-average speed and superb baseball instincts. He plays center field and hits third in the lineup, and he is the focus of opposing game plans. That didn’t stop him from getting off to a hot start this weekend. He went 6-for-13 (.462) with a homer, four RBIs and three stolen bases. He is simply one of the best all-around players in college baseball, and one of the team’s leaders.
Harris, a lanky righty with a loose arm that generated mid-90s heat in the fall, rolled his ankle a couple of weeks ago, and it still caused him some aggravation Friday, when he didn’t have his best stuff or command. He still sat at 91-92 and touched 94 while flashing a plus power slider at 84 mph, a solid curveball with power and depth at 79 (though it was inconsistent Friday) and feel for a quality changeup. He has first-round ability, and he still has room to grow in his 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame. Evans said he was a 160-pound “stick figure” when he showed up on campus, and he’s worked hard to get stronger.
In his season debut, Harris allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits in five innings, walking four and striking out five. It wasn’t his best, but it was good enough to keep the game close and help Missouri State get the win.
“I personally thought it was pretty average, and I told him that,” Evans said. “He’d been so much better leading up to the season. The one thing he did do in his start Friday was he had to step up and make some pitches in the fourth and fifth innings to get out of some jams. He got some big strikeouts.”
Each of the past two summers, Harris and lefty Matt Hall played in the same summer leagues (West Coast League and the Cape Cod League), and each summer Hall earned all-star honors, while Harris did not despite being the better prospect. Hall really knows how to pitch, and his funky three-quarters delivery helps his 86-89 fastball play up. He also has very good feel for his three-quarters breaking ball, which ranges from 74-78. Hall went seven strong innings in his first start Saturday, allowing thee runs (two earned) on six hits and three walks while fanning nine. He picked up the win.
“He did a good job,” Evans said. “He came out early, and I thought he was overthrowing a hair. He kind of settled down and started throwing the ball a little better. The curve was good. He gave up four hits in the first two innings, then I think two hits over the next five innings. His velocity kind of jumped around, but his offspeed stuff was really good.”
The Bears have another wily veteran on Sunday in junior lefthander Andy Cheray, a soft-tosser who keeps hitters off balance by mixing his 83-85 fastball (that bumps to 86-87 at times) with a good changeup and a knuckle curve. Evans said he has a unique curveball grip, with two fingers on the ball like he’s throwing a knuckle ball, and said it reminds him of former Texas great and big leaguer Burt Hooton’s curveball. Cheray turned in the best start of the trio Sunday against Washington State, yielding just two hits and a walk through seven shutout innings. He was a model of efficiency, throwing just 69 pitches.
That rotation can rival Dallas Baptist’s for the best in the Valley. And Missouri State should play excellent defense behind its staff, led by Matheny in center and a pair of rock-solid senior middle infielders in 2B Eric Cheray and SS Joey Hawkins.
Eric Cheray spent time catching down the stretch last year and was drafted in the 17th round as a catcher by the Athletics. But he elected to return to school for his senior year, giving Missouri State a huge boost. He’s a very good all-around player who can hit, and he was a force this weekend, going 5-for-9 (.556) with a homer, four RBIs and five walks to just one strikeout.
“He is a good player,” Evans said. “He’s a 6-3, 205 guy. He just plays the game right. He’s got really, really good hands — you can see it when he plays defense at second base, see it when he sits behind the plate and receives; it’s an average arm. He made some nice defensive plays at second, really swung the bat well. We’re really fortunate he didn’t sign and came back to help the team. He’s one of our team captains along with Hawkins, our senior shortstop, and Matheny.”
Third baseman Jake Burger (.429) and corner outfielder Spencer Johnson (.429) also got off to good starts. Johnson, a junior, has been slow to develop, but has shown dramatically improved plate discipline heading into the season, then carried it into opening weekend by drawing five walks without striking out. Evans said he worked hard in the weight room in the summer and looks ready to blossom into a key run producer.
The addition of Burger, a talented freshman, also makes this lineup stronger. He opened the weekend hitting toward the bottom of the lineup but moved into the cleanup spot Sunday against a lefty and responded by going 2-for-5 with two runs and an RBI. That could be a sign of big things to come.
“He was no surprise,” Evans said. “He’s a plus defender with a good arm, we liked what we saw from him in the fall. This kid doesn’t have a knock. He runs well for a big guy, got some pop in his bat, good defender, good arm. High character, good student, knows how to play the game, doesn’t get frustrated like you see some freshmen. He’s the right mix.”
It sounds like Missouri State has the right mix as a team, too.