Gayman-Long baseball battle highlights Central Region opener at MSSU

May 15—No. 2 in the Central Region, Missouri Southern State University hosts No. 7 Harding University at 5 p.m. Thursday at Warren Turner Field.

Head baseball coach Bryce Darnell calls it a "big honor" to be able to be one of the 16 host sites in NCAA Division II tournament. This marks the second straight season that his group has been able to host.

The first game of the day will feature No. 3 Arkansas Tech University against No. 6 University of Arkansas-Monticello at 1 p.m.

All eyes will be watching the pitching matchup of Cole Gayman and Maddox Long.

Gayman, a member of the all-MIAA first team, is listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds.

Long, the Great American Conference pitcher of the year, is 6-foot-5, 290 pounds.

Long has seven inches and 90 pounds on the Lions' ace but his 3.11 earned run average is a shade behind Gayman's 2.33 mark. Long has recorded 103 strikeouts to Gayman's 87. Harding's ace is 6-1 while Gayman is 11-2 overall.

"We're facing the GAC pitcher of the year so he's going to be outstanding," Darnell said. "He's going to provide some challenges for us for sure."

Darnell watched his team rattle off five straight wins in the MIAA tournament over the past two weeks. In those wins, the Lions outscored opponents 57-30. Prior to the championship game that saw a final score of 18-16, the Lions were outscoring the opposition 39-14.

They'll try to keep that success going with a run differential of +27 in their favor.

"What our guys need to do is just keep competing hard," Darnell said.

Have the last three weeks been the best baseball of the season so far?

"Probably. But part of that is because of the significance of the games," he said. "I feel like our guys are hitting their stride and feeling pretty good about themselves and that definitely matters."

MSSU comes in with a team batting average of .317 while Harding's is .283. The Bison have just 46 home runs to the Lions' 79. MSSU also leads in on-base percentage at .434 to HU's .381.

Darnell noted that Harding may not hit with as much power as some of their opponents but is still be capable of it.

The Lions will be looking to continue some specifics that have earned them wins lately.

"It takes a great effort from your pitching staff for sure. And it takes timely hits, man," Darnell said. "Just like in the big leagues, in the playoffs, it's all about getting hits with guys on base, taking advantage of mistakes by the opposing team. Hopefully we can play good defense and continue to get good starting pitching. I feel like offensively we're in a good spot right now. So, hopefully with that combination, we can have success."

The Lions are led by players such as Henry Kusiak and Will Doherty on offense as well as Drew Townsend and Garrett Rice. But, Darnell talked about the importance of getting other guys going this week as well. Among those are Chayton Beck, Nate Mieszkowski, Treghan Parker and Drew Davis.

"They're just better offensive players than their stats say," Darnell said. "We saw flashes of that this weekend. If that continues, that adds length to our lineup and gives us a better chance to be successful."

In that 34-run, four-hour marathon game the Lions played in the MIAA championship with the University of Central Missouri, Mieszkowki went 2 for 5 with two RBIs and two runs scored. He had a solo home run that went over the scoreboard in left field.

He talked about that working as a confidence builder for him moving forward.

"I had a slow start early on in the first two months of the season. Going into the past few weeks I feel like I've been seeing it well. I'm just going to use that as motivation trying to stay hot for this tournament coming up," Mieszkowski said.

The redshirt-junior second baseman is 8 for 21 in MSSU's last five games with six RBIs and five runs scored.

"Just trying to have confidence in myself and not focusing on the results every day. Just trying to have a team win," Mieszkowski said.

One of his at-bats Saturday did turn out to be one of those team-first at-bats. Mieszkowski struck a ball to the wall and the UCM outfielder ran it down and made the catch crashing into the wall. But, there was a runner on third base and Mieszkowski was able to produce with a sacrifice fly. He added that the heart of the order is "awesome to hit behind."

"They're always on base so I feel like I have an RBI opportunity every time I get up," Mieszkowski added.