Ace right-hander Tanner Houck’s time at Missouri is running short.
Houck, a native of Collinsville, Ill., is a projected first-round pick in June’s amateur baseball draft, and first-year Tigers coach Steve Bieser has no illusion Houck will stick around for his senior season.
“When our season ends, he’ll be drafted and … won’t be back for another season,” Bieser said.
Houck hopes that Tuesday’s game against Texas A&M in the opening round of the SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover, Ala., isn’t the end of the line for his Mizzou career.
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If the 10th-seeded Tigers (35-21, 14-16 SEC) lose against the seventh-seeded Aggies (36-20, 16-14 SEC), that’s it for Houck as an amateur.
With a win, Missouri would reach the double-elimination portion of the bracket and a chance to advance to the weekend, when Houck would throw again — perhaps with an NCAA Tournament berth at stake.
“I would take the ball again in a heartbeat if it helps this team succeed in any way possible,” said Houck, who is 4-7 with a career-best 2.89 ERA and 91 strikeouts against 21 walks in 90 1/3 innings this season. “I’m going to help out on Tuesday, and then hopefully Saturday or Sunday, whenever it gets to that point.”
The Tigers started the season like gangbusters — winning 20 of 21 games, including a sweep at Alabama to open the conference schedule — but the SEC grind took a toll.
Mizzou limped to six wins in its next 22 conference games before a strong closing kick had Bieser’s bunch riding a six-game winning streak, including a sweep last weekend at Tennessee, into the conference tourney.
“Quite frankly, we could have been overconfident after we came out of the Alabama weekend with guys feeling like it was going to be easy,” Bieser said. “We were getting it handed to us for a month-long stretch and we had to put a lot of time and work and effort into getting out of the funk that we were in. I give the players all the credit in the world for being resilient.”
The work isn’t done.
The Tigers, whose RPI is 50th in the country, probably need to beat A&M and win at least two more games, including a second-round matchup with No. 2 seed LSU (39-17, 21-9 SEC), to have a realistic shot at an NCAA regional berth.
“We control our own destiny by winning, but we have to take it one game at a time,” said junior catcher Brett Bond, who leads MU with a .313 average and ranks second with 10 home runs. “We’ve got Tanner on the mound Tuesday. We want to win that game and go from there.”
Mizzou’s lowest point came against A&M, which swept a three-game series in late April at Taylor Stadium in Columbia by a combined 25-4 score.
Momentum in baseball is the next game’s starter, and the Tigers expects a better showing in the rematch with the Aggies.
“The momentum is definitely there, especially when you’ve got a Tanner Houck going, and good things are happening for our club right now,” Bieser said. “Everybody feels confident about the situation we’re in right now. We’ve got the pitching set up exactly the way we’d like to make a really deep run in the tournament.”
Freshman left-hander T.J. Sikkema (8-1, 2.28 ERA), who was chosen Monday for the All-SEC Freshman Team, and junior right-hander Cole Bartlett (6-2, 2.78 ERA), who was announced Monday as the Collegiate Baseball News Louisville Slugger national player of the week, are lined up behind Houck.
“I hope it’s not his last game, but I know he’s going to go out there and pitch like it is,” Bond said of Houck. “It’s been a pleasure to catch him. I’m proud of him and excited for his future, but I know Tuesday he’s going to be focused on trying to extend our season.”