Drew Millas and Tyler McAlister are the wide-eyed freshmen, soaking in the experience of playing collegiate baseball on its biggest stage.
Blake Graham and Aaron Meyer are the wounded seniors, enjoying the ride, but hoping their previous experience in the NCAA Super-Regional goes a step beyond in 2017.
All four are former metro-east high school standouts who have helped the Missouri State University Bears (43-18) to their second Super 16 in three seasons.
They arrived in Fort Worth on Thursday afternoon to prepare for a best-of-three series with No. 7 Texas Christian University (45-16) with a College World Series berth at stake.
“The year has just been unreal,” said Millas, a freshman from Belleville East and MSU’s starting catcher. “I can’t believe how far we’ve come since the beginning of the year. I walked in in the fall and didn’t know anybody. Now I feel like I’m part of a tight-knit group where everybody has the same purpose in mind. It’s been amazing.”
To get to the Super 16, No. 22 Missouri State had to go through No. 12 Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark. The Bears did so with three one-run wins to claim the regional championship.
I walked in in the fall and didn’t know anybody. Now I feel like I’m part of a tight-knit group where everybody has the same purpose in mind. It’s been amazing.
Drew Millas, MSU catcher from Belleville East
For Graham, the designated hitter from Edwardsville, and Meyer, an injured infielder from Belleville West, the series win over the Razorbacks was retribution for a super-regional defeat in 2015.
That series was supposed to have been played at Hammons Field in Springfield, Mo., but scheduling conflicts with the landlord —the Springfield Cardinals of the Double-A Texas League — forced the series to Arkansas.
“Fayetteville is a great place to play, but it’s really tough,” said Graham. “It’s a passionate fan base and they bring a lot of them. When we saw we were going back, we definitely felt like we wanted to settle the score. We can close the book on that now.”
All three games of MSU’s super-regional series with TCU will be televised.
Game 1 on Saturday will be broadcast on ESPNU, while Game 2 at 6 p.m. Sunday will be on both ESPNU and ESPN2. The decisive Game 3, if necessary, will be played Monday at a time and network undetermined as of Friday.
Missouri State’s metro-east foursome know the region will be watching.
“It’s more of a Bears thing than a 618 thing,” Millas said. “But we’re seeing messages on Twitter on Facebook wishing us good luck and things like that. We know the area is behind us.”
Graham is day-to-day
Graham’s status for the TCU series is in question due to a recurring injury to his left knee.
The ligament tear originally occurred during a Feb. 26 win over Middle Tennessee. Believed to be season-ending, Graham somehow made it back after missing just 17 games, though he was relegated to designated-hitter duties after starting 52 games in the outfield as a junior.
“I didn’t get surgery on it,” he said. “When I first got hurt, my thought was that this team could be really good, and, as a senior, I really wanted to be part of it with the guys. I chose to try to rehab it instead of being redshirted as a senior.”
In 154 at-bats, Graham is hitting .325 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs. But during the regional clinching win over Arkansas on Monday, the injured kneecap dislocated as he followed through on a swing.
“We figured it was going to happen at some point,” Graham said by phone Friday morning. “I’ll take my first swings today and see how it goes. Otherwise, whether I can play or not will be decided day by day.”
Given the stage of the season and his senior status, Graham says he’s motivated to “press it a little.”
“I love the game, but with the situation I’m in physically, this might have to be it for me. That’s just how it goes,” he said. “I’ve had a a good year and I just want to enjoy the ride for as long as it takes us.”
Meyer tries new role
Meyer, meanwhile, is out for sure.
The senior second baseman and son of Belleville West Athletic Director Lee Meyer, tore the patellar tendon in his right knee during an April 25 win over Missouri. At the time, he was batting .292 with 10 doubles, four home runs and 30 RBIs in 41 games, all of them starts.
Meyer had surgery just two days later and has since battled through minor, but frustrating setbacks that included a second surgery to clean a staph infection from the joint.
“There have been some bumps here and there,” he said. “Now there’s a wound on top that isn’t healing right. It’s all going to be OK, but it’s just put me back in my recovering. It’s been a big ordeal.”
In the meantime, Meyer has been invited to return to MSU in 2018 as a graduate assistant coach. It’s in that capacity he’ll serve the team for the remainder of this season. Meyer also will assist with a team in the Show-Me Collegiate League this summer.
“Being back in the super-regional is a dream come true whether you’re playing or coaching,” said Meyer, a sports administration major who plans to make coaching his career. “I’m embracing the experience in the role than I’m in. Not too many can say they’ve come this far.”
What’s ahead for his playing days remains in question. Prior to the injury, Meyer was a potential pick in next week’s Major League Baseball Draft.
He’s says he’ll see how the injury effected his draft status before he looks too far ahead.
“I’m not sure where the injury lands me, so who knows if there’s a chance (I’ll be drafted)?” he said. “I completely understand that there are guys ahead of me, so I can just hope for the best. Independent ball is a possibility, too.”
Millas, McAlister learn the ropes
As roommates, Millas and McAlister are experiencing Division I baseball and the collegiate postseason together, though they’ve taken different paths.
In 41 starts behind the plate, Millas, a former three-sport standout at Belleville East, is hitting just .219 with one home run and 29 RBIs. But he’s lived up to his reputation as a strong and athletic defensive catcher.
The offense, he says, will catch up.
“The jump from high school to the Missouri Valley Conference and D-I was just so big. There is so much more to the college game,” he said. “Defensively, I feel so much better, like I’ve learned a lot. Hitting-wise, it’s not the season I wanted, but there are good hitters around me and I feel like I’m beginning to put it all together.”
McAlister, a right-handed pitcher from Waterloo, hasn’t had as much success as a freshman. Limited to just 9.2 innings including one start, he’s arrived in Fort Worth with a 9.31 ERA, though he’s struck out 11 batters.
“It’s a different game up here and it’s easy to outthink yourself sometimes,” he said. “I try to sit back, take a deep breath and understand that there’s a reason I’m here, a reason I’m on this team. The guys around us took us in. No one is better than anyone else around here. That’s been a big help.”
So has living with the starting catcher, McAlister said.
“For sure. A lot of times we sit and watch and MLB game and try to dissect the hitters,” he said. “Drew works with the older pitchers and knows what they want to do to attack hitters and he has his own philosophies. We talk about it a lot.”