Among most star athletes and most star-anythings, it’s a familiar mindset — to keep pushing regardless of stature.
Missouri baseball’s star pitcher Tanner Houck is no exception.
“I believe that if you think you’re at the top of the mountain, you’re going to fail,” Houck said Monday.
But you best believe the first-team preseason All-America pick by Baseball America and D1 Baseball, the Golden Spikes Award watch list member (for the third straight year) and the Collinsville, Ill., native is striving to reach the peak.
“Tanner has been all business right now. He wants to be the first pick in the draft,” first-year Missouri coach Steve Bieser said. “... But we’ve talked about how you can’t control whether you’re the first pick or the 10th pick, it’s the organizations who decide what they need. I think he’s able to put all of that past him and he’s able to go out and do his job every single day and that’s what we expect from Tanner.”
Come Friday at 6 p.m., against Eastern Michigan at City of Palms Park in Fort Meyers, Fla., the 6-foot-5 junior in Houck will make his first attempt to live up to his own high expectations.
Yes, unlike last year, in which Houck’s presence on the bump was felt on Saturdays, the ace will embrace the Friday night honor.
Still, his goal each time he takes the mound remains the same.
“For me, I just want to do anything I can to help the team win,” said Houck, who is 13-11 with a 3.23 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 206 career innings at Mizzou. “I’m sure if you ask anyone else in the locker room, that’s all that really matters for us is to go out there and win and never give up.”
Houck admitted that the attitude is nothing new, but that it’s been furthered by the source of a newfound energy for the black and gold in Bieser.
Hailing from Southeast Missouri, where his teams won three consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championships in four years, Bieser is accustomed to winning. And for Houck, that’s what’s been most fun about former coach Tim Jamieson’s replacement, the fourth coach to head up Mizzou baseball since 1937.
“He’s not saying, ‘Oh, I want to win in two years or three years.’ He wants to win right now, this season,” Houck said.
Another positive has been the assistance provided by new pitching coach Patrick Hallmark, who arrived from Rice, where he spent the last 11 years.
In years past, no one coach focused specifically on the pitching staff. Now, along with Houck, Hallmark is the go-to-guy for Saturday starters in junior Andy Toelken and sophomore Michael Plassmeyer. He’s also assisted those in relief such as hard-throwing junior Bryce Montes De Oca, who is currently working his way back from a right elbow surgery and could be used in a Saturday relief role.
Beyond that, a top priority for the team has been defensive improvement, Bieser said.
“We have high expectations on defense,” Bieser said. “... We’ve been really focused on defense; we expect to play good defense. And we expect pitchers to throw strikes and to be able to defend. And the offense has come along really well in the last few weeks so I’m really pleased with both sides of the ball.”
Like he always has behind the plate catching Houck, junior catcher Brett Bond has embraced Bieser’s new offensive strategy — pitch recognition.
“I don’t want to say (the new strategy) is completely different, but it’s different,” Bond said. “It’s a lot of learning, and you (have to) think through hitting. You’ve got to try to get the barrel angle (right), the bat angle (right) and you’ve got to stick to your approach. That’s something that’s really helped me.”
With a four-game series this weekend and another slotted for next week, time will tell on how much this staff has indeed helped early on.
In the SEC’s preseason coaches poll, Missouri was picked to finish last, but Bieser and crew don’t care.
“The preseason rankings mean nothing to me,” Beiser said. “It’s where we are going to be at postseason, and I think the best thing to be in this situation right now is to allow people to expect nothing from this club and I think we can surprise some people.”
Houck won’t surprise anyone, though. Especially if he’s better than expected.