A two-hour weather delay cut short Sikkema's start Saturday at Tennessee in the third inning - a setback for the Tigers at the time, but it came with a silver lining. Sikkema's early exit meant he'd be available out of the bullpen in Sunday's rubber game. And that offered the Tigers serious peace of mind heading into the finale.
"We set it up that if we could get late in the game and have the lead, he would take this opportunity," Missouri coach Steve Bieser said. "He said [Sunday] when he came out, 'I feel pretty good, I feel like I could go more.' When we got to the latter part of the game he was wondering when he was gonna go in. He's just a great young man and a tough, tough competitor. He's got a lot of good qualities, but that's probably one of his best qualities."
The Tigers called upon their not-so-secret weapon in a tight spot Sunday, with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh. He minimized the damage to one run, then breezed through two perfect innings in the eighth and ninth, helping lead Mizzou to a huge series-clinching 10-8 win.
Sikkema has been a Swiss army knife for Missouri since his freshman year, regularly pitching out of the bullpen early in a series if the Tigers need key outs, then coming back to start later in the weekend. He was primarily a bullpen weapon during his standout freshman year, going 8-2, 2.72 in 22 appearances (three starts). Last year was more of a hybrid role; he posted a 3.34 ERA in 16 appearances (10 starts). This year has been more of the same - 15 appearances, 11 starts.
"It's a little different, but at the same time I'm here for the team, and I'm just gonna compete when they give me the ball," Sikkema said. "I knew there was a good chance that I was gonna come out and throw today, and even after we went down seven runs [in the first two innings], I was still pretty confident that we were gonna come back and I was gonna get a chance to pitch in this game where it meant a lot. … It's just really working hard on recovery, we have a good program set up with our strength and conditioning, and it's really helped me these past three years, so I think that's a big part of it."
"The luxury with that is you're not putting him into a foreign situation," Bieser added. "There are a lot of starters that could probably come in and close, but since they've never done it, you always wonder how they're going to respond in a different role. He's done everything in our program, from starting to opening to middle relief, you name it he's done it, and he's done it at a high standard."
Indeed, Sikkema has been a standout his entire collegiate career, but he's really taken his game to another level as a junior this spring. He ranks fourth in the nation with a sparkling 1.22 ERA, along with a 6-3 record, two saves, a .189 opponents' batting average and an 87-27 K-BB mark in 73.2 innings. Sikkema says his experience in the Cape Cod League (where he was an all-star) last summer helped him make this leap as a junior.
"I think it's just a little bit more mature. I'm learning how to pitch," Sikkema said. "I think this summer really helped me, I learned how to pitch with all four of my pitches, going out there reading hitters' swings, really knowing what to throw after a batter takes a selected type of swing, you just have to read that. I think that's the biggest part I've really grown on, just the mental side of the game."
As Bieser said, Sikkema is a premier competitor, and he as an innate feel for pitching that is rare - in some ways he's like former South Carolina star Michael Roth, but with better stuff. Like Roth, he can vary his arm slots and add and subtract from his fastball deliberately to keep hitters off balance. But Sikkema has more velocity; he touched 93-94 from a three-quarters or slightly higher slot this weekend. Then he'll drop down to sidearm or a tick above and give lefthanded hitters fits.
"Each year his stuff has improved. Now when he needs to or wants to, he'll run it to 93-95," Bieser said. "What makes him effective is it's such a tough angle. He slings it, he's way on the first-base side of the rubber, and you never see a pitch the same speed. So it's anywhere from 88 to 95 with the fastball, and he's changing it intentionally. Then his breaking ball, he's got a couple different arm slots, he throws one harder. So it's just so many different speeds, and it's really tough for a hitter when they have to face him.
"I don't think you teach what he has. It's something that he's grown up and done all of his life. You start trying to teach that, usually they're not effective and they don't know when to use it. But he's done it all his career. Those things are invaluable. There's days he hasn't had his best stuff, and he starts changing more arm angles, and he starts turning that little sidearm throw over a little bit to get more sink. So he's a smart guy, he's a baseball guy."
Sikkema said his 81-82 mph slider from a lower slot is his go-to out pitch against lefties, and it's a filthy strikeout weapon for him. But he prefers to use more of a downer curveball at 78-79 against righties, and he also will mix in a changeup.
"But I lean heavy on my fastball just because of the deception and everything," Sikkema said. "I feel confident in all my pitches, and I think that's one of the biggest things for me."
So there are many reason's for Sikkema's incredible success - and his excellence is a major reason Missouri is closing in on a regionals berth, with a No. 20 RPI and a 12-11-1 record in the rugged SEC. Bieser said the Tigers feed off Sikkema and fellow star Kameron Misner, and the team plays with a little extra confidence when Sikkema is on the mound and rolling.
The Tigers haven't been in the NCAA tournament since 2012, so Sikkema and his teammates are well aware of how much it would mean for the program to break the drought. And he's enjoying the ride.
"It's fun. It's very special," he said. "These guys are my brothers, and it's an awesome ride. We're playing really well as a team. As you can see, we have a lot of fight. We've worked for this all fall, we had a tough fall, tough winter. And I think it's now starting to show: these guys aren't gonna give up, and there's nobody who's not ready for the challenge. So a lot of guys stepped up, and a lot of guys came up big for us, so it was a huge team weekend.
"Hope we can continue this, and I'm sure we're gonna fight hard and keep going, so I'm excited to see what the future holds."
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