Tigers win home opener in front of record crowd
By Erik Hall
COLUMBIA — Missouri right-hander Brett Graves made his first career Friday-night start in his team’s home opener against Southern Mississippi.
He earned the win with eight strikeouts allowing one run and five hits in eight innings.
Missouri second baseman Josh Lester helped the Tigers earn their first win of the season at Taylor Stadium.
Lester went 2-for-4 with the game’s first hit and first run. He added a seventh-inning RBI for insurance in the Tigers’ 4-1 victory.
It was the first time a crowd as large as Friday’s 1,028 attendees saw a Missouri home opener, since at least 1997.
“That’s the most people we’ve played in front of all year,” Missouri designated hitter Eric Anderson said. “I think the excitement level was up and our guys were ready. When you see people in the seats, your intensity is there and your focus is there. It’s a good feeling.”
Missouri used the energy of its home debut and scored two runs in the opening inning.
Lester batted second in the bottom of the first. His blooper single over the shortstop started a string of four consecutive Tigers to reach base. Lester scored on catcher Dylan Kelly’s single for Missouri’s first run, and first baseman Kendall Keeton came home when third baseman Zach Lavy put the ball in play.
Missouri claimed a 2-0 lead early in the year’s first 60-degree day in Columbia.
“Sometimes if we don’t score early, we kind of try a little too hard to score. But scoring two runs in the first inning kind of kept us relaxed,” said Lester, a sophomore. “We knew Brett was going to go out there and throw well.”
Graves allowed no hits the first inning, but he struggled some to start the second inning. He allowed one run on two hits, which cut Missouri’s lead to 2-1.
But a popout to Lester ended the second inning with two men on base.
Lester catching the popup was the first of eight consecutive batters Graves retired. Graves retired 13 of the 15 batters he faced from the final out of the second inning through end of the sixth inning.
“I was using my curveball pretty effectively,” Graves said. “The fastball felt pretty good once we got to the later innings. I didn’t feel like the control was as good in the early innings as it was the later innings.”
He struck out six batters in that stretch of 13 outs, and the defense took care of the rest.
“If I do fall behind a hitter, I know I can just throw the ball in there and let them hit. I don’t have to worry too much,” Graves said of Missouri’s defense Friday. “So the defense plays great, it helps that confidence.”
Missouri freshman Ryan Howard was a Taylor Stadium rookie entering Friday’s game. He committed the Tigers’ only error Friday, which came in the top of the first inning.
“I talked to him right after. I told him to just kind of relax,” Graves said. “All of us have been there before and knows what that feels like to have to come out here to play your first game, especially as a freshman on Friday night. I just told him, ‘You’re there for a reason. You’re a stud. You’ll make the next one. I know you will.’”
That “next one” came in the fifth inning. He fielded back-to-back grounders to end the Bulldogs’ at-bat. Howard then turned a double play to end the seventh inning.
Missouri’s offense followed double play that ended the top of the seventh with a two-run bottom of the inning.
Center fielder Jake Ring walked then Anderson and Lester hit back-to-back doubles. Missouri’s lead grew to 4-1.
“It was fun,” Lester said of the seventh inning. “It is fun to play. It’s fun when you’re scoring runs, and winning ballgames is always fun.”
Graves earned the win and is now 2-1. Keaton Steele faced five batters in the ninth to earn the save. The loss went to Southern Mississippi right-hander Conor Fisk, who threw 6 2/3 inning and allowed four earned runs and five hits while striking out eight.
Missouri’s win improves the Tigers to 5-6 overall while Southern Mississippi fell to 6-8. The teams are scheduled to play a 2 p.m. game Saturday and a game at noon Sunday.
The Tigers will try to make the encore as good as opening night.
Story originally published by KBIA Sports Extra on Friday, March 7, 2014.