While he was an assistant coach at Rice University, Pat Hallmark had a way of maximizing how much he and head coach Wayne Graham were able to get out of Glenn Otto, the Owls’ best relief pitcher.
Otto was ostensibly Rice’s closer, but calling him a closer downplays the role he played. On Friday night, he might enter a game in the middle innings and settle things down for three or four innings. Then, maybe he’d come back on Sunday and throw the last couple of innings of a win. Or vice versa. The point is that Hallmark and Graham wanted to turn to Otto when it mattered most.
The way Otto was used, then, was instructive in understanding the way that Hallmark (now the head coach at Incarnate Word) and Missouri head coach Steve Bieser used freshman relief ace T.J. Sikkema as he quickly and decisively established himself as a real weapon in the bullpen in 2017.
The lefty, who was also referred to as the Tigers’ closer in the same way that Otto was labeled as a closer, could certainly shut the door late in games, as evidenced by his four saves. But he could also be stretched out to throw multiple innings in relief, as he showed by throwing 79.1 innings over 22 appearances. To top it off, he showed he could also start, as he did three times, including a four-hit shutout against Tennessee on the last weekend of the season.
No matter the role, he was effective. In those 79.1 innings, he had a 2.72 ERA, an 81/18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .186 opponent batting average. Perhaps his most dominant stretch was his start to the season. From February 18 to March 25, a span of nine appearances and 29.2 innings, he struck out 48 hitters and didn’t give up a single earned run. It should go without saying that his production earned him a spot on the All-SEC Freshman Team when it was all said and done.
Even Bieser admitted to being a bit taken aback by how successful Sikkema was so quickly.
“He’s done nothing but surprise me,” Bieser told Jack Radetic of the Columbia Missourian back in March. “To be a freshman, walk in, and be put in the most pressure situations. He continues to amaze me about how he attacks and just doesn’t back down from competition.”
There were a number of factors that led to Missouri’s successful season and near miss for the NCAA Tournament in 2017, but chief among them has to be the quick acclimation and development of Sikkema.
Heading into 2018, those three starts he made last season might be a preview of his role moving forward. As valuable as he is as a versatile bullpen arm, given what he did in starts like the one against Tennessee and in many of his extended relief outings, it has to be tempting to slot him into the weekend rotation to see what he can do as a full-time starter.
Either way, Sikkema is going to play a big role for the Tigers in 2018, making him among the top players to watch in the SEC.