By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
OKLAHOMA CITY – About two weeks before Big 12 Conference play started, Missouri coach Tim Jamieson gave his players an honest assessment.
"I told them the way we were playing we weren't going to win a Big 12 game," he said.
The Tigers started 2-9 in Big 12 play and while Jamieson's "oh fer" prediction wasn't accurate, they didn't appear capable of finishing in the top eight to qualify for the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship.
So, guess who's playing for title Sunday (1 p.m., FSN)? Missouri. The Tigers are the first No. 8 seed to reach the championship game and will face second-seeded and regular-season co-champions Texas A&M.
The Tigers (27-31) earned the right to keep playing with a scintillating 2-1 victory over Texas Saturday at RedHawks Field. Missouri, which will be playing in the title game for the third time, has never won the Big 12 Championship. And to reach the NCAA tournament, Missouri has to beat the Aggies and earn the Big 12's automatic bid.
The Tigers' winning pitcher Saturday was Kelly Fick, a senior who was making his first start of the season. He wears No. 21. A jersey of a former Missouri player whose home in Joplin, Mo., was destroyed by last Sunday's tornado was delivered to the team by the father of catcher Ben Turner. It has been hanging in the Tigers' dugout.
The number on the muddy, torn jersey? 21.
"The tragedy in Joplin and the devastation there really puts life in perspective," said Fick, who is from Jefferson City, Mo. "It shows me that you can't take everything for granted in life. Look at the small things in life and be thankful for what you do have because you never know when it could happen to you or your family."
Missouri, which had defeated Texas and Oklahoma State earlier in the bracket, was forced into the elimination game after Texas recorded a 6-1 victory Saturday morning. The Longhorns (43-15) had 11 hits and had collected 35 hits in their three Big 12 tourney victories.
The job of stopping the Texas attack fell to Fick, a starter last season who had been relegated to relief work and spot starts this season. Against the Longhorns, he pitched a career-high seven innings, allowing four hits, zero walks while throwing 76 pitches.
"I was able to keep my pitch count down and change speeds and locate my fastball so I was able to go deeper in the game," Fick said.
The Tigers made the most of their three hits. Shortstop Jesse Santo had a run-scoring double to give Missouri a 1-0 lead in the second inning. Blake Brown provided what turned out to be the winning run with a monster shot to left field on the first pitch of the seventh.
Missouri was playing its fourth game since Wednesday, Texas its fifth. That kind of schedule usually means the pitching staffs are scraping the bottom of the barrel.
"That's part of championship baseball - the unexpected," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "That's what happened today. I don't think anyone would have looked at what was left of each pitching staff and expected great pitching by both teams.
"It was an exciting baseball game, and I think to say anything negative from our point of view would take away from the greatness of the victory from Missouri. They earned that from every point of view. It shows the value of the tournament, in my opinion."