COLUMBIA — Steve Bieser doesn't think much of preseason baseball polls.
In his first year as Southeast Missouri State's baseball coach, Bieser's Redhawks were picked to finish last in the Ohio Valley Conference before finishing sixth that year. The Redhawks won the next three OVC titles. Now, in his first year as Missouri baseball's head coach, Bieser's team is picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference.
Of course, the competition is much tougher in the SEC than the OVC. But Bieser is still hoping people sleep on his Tigers.
"The preseason rankings mean nothing to me," Bieser said. "It's where are we going to be postseason and 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."
Last season, Missouri was ranked No. 15 heading into the season before finishing a disappointing 26-30 and 9-20 in the SEC, good for 12th. Missouri made the SEC Tournament on the last weekend of the regular season before losing 7-0 to Vanderbilt in the first round. Long-time head coach Tim Jamieson resigned and Bieser was hired in his place.
Bieser comes to Missouri with the reputation of having teams with high character and solid fundamentals. Playing solid defense, having quality at-bats and finding ways to manufacture runs is what Bieser has emphasized to his team.
He makes his debut at 6 p.m. today against Eastern Michigan in a four-game weekend series in Fort Myers, Fla.
"The thing that I've been most impressed is every single guy on the team has bought into the process, and that's what we're looking at," Bieser said. "A process we feel has been very successful in the past as a coaching staff and guys are buying into the standards and expectations that we're asking of each and every player and we're excited to see how that translates to game play."
Defense in particular has been a heavy focus for Bieser since the team's fall scrimmages. In fact, he said the team didn't really focus on hitting until early in the spring.
Missouri finished 13th in the SEC in fielding percentage last year with a .963 clip and committed the second most errors with 81. The Tigers tied a program record with eight errors in a 17-7 loss to Vanderbilt on March 27.
"That's been a priority for us, we have a lot of sinker ball pitchers and ground ball pitchers and the priority in the fall was to make sure we clean up our defense," Bieser said. "And we have high expectations on defense."
The leader of Missouri's pitching staff is junior Tanner Houck.
Houck was a 12th-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school in 2014, but opted not to sign. Now he's projected as a top 10 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft and has been named to four different preseason All-American lists and is on the Golden Spikes watch list for the third straight year.
"I can't really let that affect me, I've just got to pitch and play the game that I love and go out there and compete for all my brothers," Houck said. "Growing up with three sisters all the guys in the locker room are my brothers. So I just need to go out there and attack the zone and pitch the way I have been."
Bieser hired Rice pitching coach Patrick Hallmark for the same role on his staff. Jamieson worked as pitching coach last season.
"Coach Hallmark, he's a great guy," Houck said. " He's come in and put an emphasis on throwing strikes, that's kind of what it was last year and the years before that, but having a solo guy that we can go to that's just for pitching, it's nice. He can really focus on us as a pitching staff instead of worrying about the whole team."
Last season Houck led the team with a 2.99 ERA, 106 strikeouts and 1051/3 innings. He becomes the team's Friday starter now that Reggie McClain has graduated and was a 13th-round pick of the Seattle Mariners.
Who goes after Houck is still up in the air.
Junior transfer Andy Toelken, who posted an 18-2 career record and 2.00 ERA at St. John's River State, will start the first game of Saturday's doubleheader. Sophomore Michael Plassmeyer is scheduled to start the second game after posting a 4-7 record and 5.12 ERA last season. The starter for Sunday's game hasn't been announced, but it will likely not be junior Bryce Montes de Oca.
Montes de Oca pitched a third of an inning last season before needing surgery on his throwing arm. He was a 14th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox out of high school thanks to a fastball that can reach 100 mph.
"Bryce has been outstanding. Just yesterday he threw the ball better than he's ever thrown the ball," Bieser said. "Very intrigued by that, the plan with Bryce is to see where we might see him on Saturday in a relief role but we definitely want to see him pitch multiple innings."
Offensively, Missouri lost first baseman Zach Lavy to graduation after he led the team in average, extra base hits, RBI and home runs. Center fielder Jake Ring and shortstop Ryan Howard were both drafted and third baseman Shane Benes transferred.
Among the returning starters are outfielders Trey Harris, Kirby McGuire and Connor Brumfield, utility player Brian Sharp and catcher Brett Bond. Newcomers Chris Cornelius, Alex Samples and Robbie Glendinning are projected to start in the infield, as is Kameron Misner in the outfield.
Bieser has emphasized pitch recognition to his hitters for them to help manufacture runs.
"I think the potential is we can be a very creative offense. Our goal isn't really going to be are we going to hit .270, are we going to hit .280, it's more like how do we score six runs a game," Bieser said. " We don't want nine hitters in our lineup. We want an offense, we want everybody working for the same goal. That's really the mentality of this team is we work as an offense."
Houck has been impressed with Bieser's mentality early on, and wants to leave an impression in what Houck hopes is his last season before being drafted.
"He's not saying I want to win in three years or two years, he wants to win this season which is a good thing to hear," Houck said. "Obviously every coach wants to win, but he emphasizes it. He's a more about character and wants to build us as young men so we can go out into the world after baseball and take care of ourselves there."