Missouri hopes to ride talented pitching staff to Omaha

Missouri's football team has emerged as a surprising national title contender thanks to gunslinging quarterback Chase Daniel. The school's baseball team might just do the same thing because of a collection of gunslingers.

Like Missouri football, the baseball team isn't known as a national power. But the 2008 Tigers feature the kind of deep, experienced, power-armed rotation that tends to silence aluminum bats and propel teams to national titles. So go ahead and jot down Missouri in the sleeper category when it comes to filling out an early College World Series bracket.

Sure, the school has six trips to the College World Series (more than SEC powers such as Alabama, Arkansas and Florida) and a national title to its credit, but it hasn't been to Omaha since 1964. That's not quite as long as the drought Oregon State experienced, going from 1952 until 2005 without a CWS trip, but the Oregon State model of building a dominant pitching staff in a not-so-conventional climate for baseball success might be one Missouri could follow.

"Winning a national championship is something that's never really been talked about around here," Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said. "But now people might think, 'Well, maybe we can.'"

The reasons to make the Missouri pick with confidence start with Aaron Crow. The junior right-hander led the Cape Cod League with an 0.67 ERA and was rated as its top prospect by both a league survey of scouts and Baseball America. Crow's fastball reached the upper-90s during the summer, and he seems poised to best his nine wins and 90 strikeouts from a year ago.

"I thought he was one of the best pitchers in the Big 12 last year," Jamieson said. "He was touching 94 [miles per hour] in the spring and had a significant jump in his velocity over the summer. That could catapult him into the 'nation's best pitcher' discussion."

Sophomore right-hander Kyle Gibson might not be far behind. He was the second-rated pitcher on that Cape Cod prospects list, after striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings and earning eight wins and seven saves as a freshman. He works in the low 90s with a power slider, and Gibson's 6-foot-5 frame could allow him to experience a velocity jump similar to Crow's as he fills out. Gibson likely will move to the rotation this season, ceding the endgame to junior left-hander Scooter Hicks, who saved six games in sharing the closer's role a year ago.

Juniors Rick Zagone and Ian Berger also will return to the rotation, after following Crow on the weekends last season. Count freshman right-hander Nick Tepesch as the pitching wild card. He's looking to follow Crow and Gibson as an impact freshman because of his power fastball-breaking ball combination. All three hope to follow the plan set forth by Max Scherzer, who dominated at Missouri before becoming a first-round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2006.

"Our pitching staff has as much depth as it ever has," Jamieson said. "We've had a guy like Max at the top of the rotation, but not a couple guys like that. We've got more power arms than we've ever had."

Crow and Zagone have the experience of pitching -- and winning -- big games. As freshmen at the 2006 Pepperdine Regional, they threw consecutive complete games to help Missouri battle back from losing its first game to become the first No. 4 seed to win a regional. They also helped Missouri's late-season surge last season, which resulted in a second-place Big 12 finish and the school's first opportunity to serve as a regional host. Crow and Zagone started as Missouri beat Kent State and Louisville in the first two games, then had to watch and experience the bitterness of loss as Louisville won the next two on its way to Omaha.

Missouri led Louisville 2-1 before losing 4-3 in the first of its losses, and Jamieson rues not finishing off the victory. Still, he knows last year's team might have been ahead of schedule in advancing as far as it did behind a nucleus of mostly freshmen and sophomores. Now, that group returns with the aforementioned pitching depth and a lineup that should pack more punch than last year's. Junior Jacob Priday ranks as one of the Big 12's best power threats, while junior Ryan Lollis and sophomores Trevor Coleman, Aaron Senne and Greg Folgia (who moves from the bullpen to be a potential starter at second base) all should show improvement.

"Last year's team was not as talented as this year's team, but the chemistry was great and things clicked," said Jamieson, whose Tigers lost gritty veteran position players Evan Frey, Brock Bond and Gary Arndt. "We have comparable talent, if not better talents. But are they going to play as well, with the same grit and determination every day?"

If that happens, things will set up well for Missouri. The Tigers boast veterans with postseason experience and will face a conference schedule with more home games than road games, thanks to the annual Big 12 rotation. And with key series against Texas, Baylor, Nebraska and Oklahoma State all coming in Columbia, the Tigers should have a chance to play for postseason positioning and earn a chance to serve as a super-regional host for the first time.

"We've been progressing methodically, taking steps every year," Jamieson said. "Hopefully, this is the year we take the step to the glory land."

Extra Bases

• Texas, which is never short on talent but has been the victim of short NCAA Tournament runs with eliminations in home regionals the past two years, received all kinds of good news on returning players this fall. Slugger Kyle Russell, who led the nation with 28 home runs, and catcher Preston Clark opted to return to school despite being drafted as eligible sophomores. Power-armed right-hander Brandon Workman also chose Texas over the professional ranks, enrolling for his freshman year despite being selected out of high school in the third round by the Phillies. In addition, Texas welcomes back right-hander Kenn Kasparek and left-hander Riley Boening, who lost 2007 to injury. Texas will need both to help replace departees Adrian Alaniz, James Russell, Randy Boone and Joseph Krebs, a quartet that combined to throw 378.2 of Texas' 561.1 innings (67 percent) last year.

• A shoulder injury limited Rice closer Cole St. Clair to just 28.1 innings in 2007. It also dropped the dominant closer to the seventh round of June's draft. St. Clair opted not to sign, and he opted not to pitch this fall in hopes that he can be 100 percent healthy this spring. Rice coach Wayne Graham could decide to use St. Clair as a starter this year in order to give his arm a more predictable schedule and workload while also allowing him to work on his changeup. It could prove an interesting transition, given that the senior has made just two starts in his 85 career appearances.

• John Parker Wilson starred as Hoover High's quarterback on the MTV show "Two-A-Days" before moving on to play the same position for Alabama. His younger brother Ross followed in the role but showed more star quality as a shortstop, prompting the Padres to select him in the 35th round. Instead, Ross will follow his brother to Alabama but will concentrate only on baseball.

Will Kimmey has covered collegiate baseball for five years. He can be reached at wkimmey@gmail.com.