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Bulldogs, Tigers begin new rivalry at SEC tournament


Matthew Stevens



STARKVILLE -- For the first time in the history of the event, two schools will meet in the Southeastern Conference tournament knowing what its like to win such an event the previous season.  


As the SEC opens up a new 12-team, three-stage format for the conference baseball tournament, Mississippi State University and the University of Missouri will meet in tonight's first round hoping to make it back to back conference tournament championships. While No. 16 MSU (40-16, 16-14 in SEC) is the defending champion of this event, Missouri arrives in Hoover, Ala., for the first time in program history as winners of the 2012 Big 12 Conference tournament.  


Both programs will attempt to try and replicate that same playoff magic starting with the final single elimination first-round game at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The contest will be following the 4:30 p.m. game between eight-seed University of Florida and nine-seed Texas A&M University. The game will likely get underway around 8 p.m. 


"Going in we know what to expect now and what the possibility of playing four or five games in a row in that environment is like," MSU shortstop Adam Frazier said.  


The MSU-Missouri winner will face No. 4 seed University of South Carolina (39-16, 17-12) and the Gamecocks have already announced senior left handed pitcher Nolan Belcher will get the pitching start. Belcher scattered nine hits over 6 1/3 innings at Dudy Noble Field Thursday night in a 5-4 come-from-behind victory for the Bulldogs.  


The postseason success is not something is foreign to either program. MSU and Missouri have combined to make NCAA Regional play 56 times with 12 crossover years of both schools making the field. While MSU was 23 returning lettermen and eight returning starters from the program's first SEC tournament title since 2005, Missouri has qualified for its league tournament every year since 2002 and has a very impressive 9-3 mark in its last three conference tournaments  


The program familiarity doesn't end with positive experience in the postseason as MSU head coach John Cohen and Missouri head coach Tim Jamieson have a personal friendship after working together for three years.  


"I know this about Tim's club, there's no shock that they've played well in the postseason because he and his staff do such a great job," Cohen said. "I consider him one of my closes friends. I learned so much from him, having been with him at Missouri." 


Cohen was an assistant coach at Missouri, for seven seasons from 1992-1997 and three of those years were as the recruiting coordinator and hitting coach for Jamieson from 1995-97.  


In 1996, Jamieson and Cohen led the Tigers to a 39-19 overall record while taking the team to its first NCAA Regional in five years. 


"With the schedule saying they're coming to Columbia next season, it's something that was going to happen eventually, and I'm looking forward to it," Jamieson said of facing his former assistant coach. "I'm anxious to see John's reaction more than anything else." 


The matchup on the mound expresses both programs different viewpoints to the event this year as Missouri (18-31, 10-20) knows it must win the entire event to make it back to back NCAA Regional appearances, Jamieson held back its ace pitcher Rob Zastryzny (2-9, 3.64) for this single-elimination game start. Zastryzny, who is ranked No. 77 in Baseball America's Top 250 prospects for the upcoming 2013 MLB draft in June, leads the team with 81.2 innings pitched and 75 strikeouts. He is by definition Missouri's big-game pitcher with 29 Friday night starts in his career and has pitched in five postseason games with Missouri holding a 4-1 record in those contests. In his postseason career, Zastryzny has a 3.41 ERA in 29 innings pitched while striking out 18 against just six walks. On full rest in the postseason, which Missouri guaranteed by sitting him out this past weekend against the University of Kentucky, Zastrzyny has a 1.71 ERA in 21.1 innings with 15 strikeouts and four walks. 


"I'm so excited about being the first Missouri pitcher to throw in the SEC tournament and it's just the same feeling I get throwing on Friday nights," Zastrzyny said.  


"I get to set the tone for the entire weekend on Friday night and everybody can see how it's done and supposed to work. Hopefully the team can get jumpstarted on my start and realize 'oh that's how we're supposed to play in Hoover'." 


The issue in games this season where Zastrzyny takes the mound this season hasn't been with the 6-foot-3 southpaw but with the run support he has gotten from his teammates in the lineup. Six of Zastrzyny's losses have come after he pitched at least 5 1/3 inning and allowed three or less earned runs. 


"Rob has never been a concern or issue for us in his career at Missouri, period," Jamieson said. "The major concern for us is scoring runs. We have to make sure we give him some run support, which we have struggled doing this season." 


MSU will be giving the baseball to sophomore right hander Trevor Fitts (0-0, 1.65) as he'll be pitching 25 miles south of where he dominated at Pelham High School.  


Fitts made his debut as a starter a week ago, working three innings to lead a split pitching staff in MSU's 3-2 win over Oral Roberts University. 


"You can't put your weekend guys in jeopardy (and) because it's a Tuesday game and turnaround is so short, you have to protect your guys," Cohen said. "Fitts has been very productive in bullpens and we just feel like this opportunity has presented itself and he's our best candidate."  


Fitts was a two-time Louisville Slugger High School All-American pitcher at Pelham High School after compiling a 31-6 career record with nine saves and 10 shutouts in 53 mound appearances. Fitts set school single-season records for pitching wins (14), strikeouts (151) as a junior that earned him the honor of Alabama Baseball Coaches Association pitcher of the year and Birmingham News player of the year. 


"I'll be really relaxed I know that to pitch basically in my hometown and I've been watching baseball there forever so I know everything about the park," Fitts said. "Everybody is texting saying they're hearing I'm getting the Tuesday start. I responded with 'you'll be the first to know.' I must have told 10-15 people that back home honestly."



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