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Tanner Houck

Missouri's Tanner Houck (11) pitches against Alabama during the first inning of a game at the Southeastern Conference college baseball tournament at the Hoover Met, Thursday, May 21, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

COLUMBIA, Mo. • One strike away.

That’s how close the Missouri baseball team might have been to making the NCAA Tournament field last season. The Tigers already had engineered a breakthrough season in the Southeastern Conference, but a ninth-inning meltdown against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament could have been the difference between extending the season another week and watching NCAA regionals on TV.

Nursing a 6-5 lead in the ninth inning on May 20, Mizzou closer Breckin Williams had Vandy pinch-hitter Penn Murfee in an 0-2 hole with two outs. Murfee’s single sent the game to extra innings, where Vandy won 7-6 with a walk-off homer. Mizzou lost to Alabama the next day, and when the NCAA regionals came out the following week, the Tigers were among the first four teams left out of the field of 64.

The ending spoiled a remarkable comeback season for the program under longtime coach Tim Jamieson. The team’s 30 wins marked a 10-game improvement from 2014. In the country’s elite baseball conference, the Tigers went from 6-24 to 15-15 and third place in the SEC North Division. The Tigers couldn’t overcome eight losses to nonconference teams that missed the NCAA bracket, nor a 4-14 finish down the stretch, but otherwise displayed a competitive streak unseen at Mizzou since Jamieson’s prime years in the Big 12.

With Jamieson back under a new three-year contract, the Tigers are armed for better results this spring. Seven regulars are back in the starting lineup, and one of the league’s better Friday-Saturday starting duos will be on the mound.

The Tigers hope the lessons of 2015 pay off in 2016.

“The most important thing to me is that every single game matters,” said shortstop Ryan Howard, one of two MU players on USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Award preseason watch list for the nation’s best player. “Last year we lost a few games we shouldn’t have lost. If we take care of business in those games we’re probably playing in a regional and giving ourselves a chance to make it to Omaha (for the College World Series), which is our ultimate goal.”

Heady stuff for a team that’s missed NCAA play five of the last six seasons, but with senior righthander Reggie McClain back to start Friday nights and sophomore righty Tanner Houck slotted to start again on Saturdays, the Tigers’ postseason dreams aren’t farfetched. Houck, a Collinsville native, also cracked the Golden Spikes Award preseason list.

“We might have surprised people on the outside (last year), but in here, we know we’ve got all the pieces to the puzzle,” said Howard, a junior from Francis Howell Central who last year led the Tigers in batting (.308) and total bases (97). “It’s just putting the puzzle together. We know what we’re capable of.”

The season begins Friday with a four-game series against Seton Hall at City of Palms Field in Fort Myers, Fla., former spring training home for the Boston Red Sox. Mizzou plays its first home game at Taylor Stadium on March 2 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Jamieson needs to sort out his bullpen, but the rest of his plans are set. Freshman lefthander Michael Plassmeyer (De Smet) is expected to start behind McClain and Houck this weekend and will compete with senior lefty Austin Tribby for the Sunday rotation spot during SEC play.

A year after the Tigers raised their team slugging from .309 in 2014 to .383 and walloped 41 home runs, up from 10 the year before, Jamieson believes his position players to be the team’s most improved dimension. Along with Howard at shortstop, Brett Bond (Westminster) returns behind the plate with Zach Lavy at first, Trey Harris in left field and Jake Ring in center. The Tigers expect a power surge at third base from sophomore Shane Benes, who was in the lineup only 19 times last year at designated hitter after recovering from multiple knee injuries. The former Westminster standout replaces Josh Lester, last year’s team leader in homers and RBI.

“He looks a lot more like the guy we recruited than the guy we had last year,” Jamieson said.

Last year was loaded with uncertainties for Jamieson, who coached the entire season without the security of an extended contract. A new three-year deal was one of athletics director Mack Rhoades’ first major decisions last spring. The contract situation was on Jamieson’s mind the entire season, he said.

“It never went away. But really I don’t think it’s significantly different this year than it was last year,” he said. “Expectations for myself have always been higher than other people’s expectations. I want to have a great year. I want to go to the postseason. This is a team that has the capabilities of doing that.”

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