A baseball player celebrates after hitting a triple
One-time walk-on Spencer Nivens has developed into Missouri State’s top offensive player, ranking among the Missouri Valley Conference leaders in five offensive categories. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Spencer Nivens has not only experienced the baseball rivalry between Missouri State and Missouri, he’s lived it since he was old enough to hold a bat.

Nivens, Missouri State’s outstanding sophomore center fielder, grew up in Columbia and excelled for Rock Bridge High School. He saw games between the Bears and Tigers on Mizzou’s home turf. It’s where his dad, Matt, once was a standout for Mizzou in the mid-1990s.

“It’s fun being a part of the rivalry now,” Nivens said, adding that several players from the teams know each other, adding to the bragging rights. “I grew up playing with or against quite a few of them. It’s always fun to see those guys a couple of times each spring.”

As for his dad?

“I hope he’s rooting for us,” Nivens said with a laugh. “If not, he’s in trouble.”

Sloppy baseball doomed Bears in loss to Mizzou

The Bears were the ones in trouble Tuesday night as the rivalry resumed at Hammons Field, in front of a season-high 2,787 fans. Mizzou poured it on late for a 10-1 victory, tying the series at 31 wins apiece with a rematch coming on April 18 in Columbia.

The blowout was rare, as the teams split a pair of one-run decisions last season. The Tigers scored six runs over the final three innings to make it a runaway, with Missouri State contributing with some defensive misplays and shaky pitching. The Bears’ only run came on Anthony Socci’s seventh-inning home run.

While injuries, especially in the bullpen, have played a factor in the Bears’ lackluster 16-15 record, coach Keith Guttin was in no-excuse mode afterward.

“Sloppy baseball played a factor tonight,” Guttin said. “We’ve just got to have more guys we can really depend on coming out of the bullpen. Some have given us some good outings. We just need more consistency.”

‘He’s just a ballplayer’

While this was a lowlight for the Bears, Nivens’ play continues to be a reason to follow this team in the season’s final six weeks. Nivens hit a pair of doubles on Tuesday, raising his team-leading batting average to .354. He has eight doubles, four triples and nine home runs to go with 30 runs scored. 

Nivens is 11-for-20 at the plate over the last five games, reaching base 15 times. He’s among the Missouri Valley Conference leaders in home runs (9), triples (4), hits (45), slugging percentage (.683) and runs (30). 

Want defense? He has started all 30 games in center field without making an error in 72 total chances.

On the heels of a redshirt freshman season in which he earned Baseball American Freshman All-America honors, Nivens has gotten better in all phases. It’s hard to believe that he had to win a four-way battle for a roster spot in the fall of 2021 just to be on the team.

“He was playing at a very high level last year and it’s really been a continuation of that,” Guttin said. “I think he’s improved in the outfield. He has always been a disciplined hitter and his power numbers are up some. He’s gotten physically stronger.

“He’s just a ballplayer. He can run the bases well and he makes good decisions in the outfield. He does everything well.”

A baseball player gets ready to hit the ball
Spencer Nivens grew up in Columbia and said it’s always special when Missouri State and Missouri meet on the baseball field. The series is even at 31 wins apiece after the Tigers prevailed 10-1 Tuesday night at Hammons Field. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Power has improved at the plate, but there’s room to grow

As for how he’s improved at the plate, he’s far from satisfied.

“There’s a lot of positive things, but also a lot of things that I can work on,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement. That’s something that we teach here. I’ll get back in the cages tomorrow and keep going.”

Offseason work in the weight room has helped Nivens develop more power and that’s something that should continue to evolve as his career proceeds. 

“Getting in the weight room over the winter has helped me get stronger and we tweaked some things mechanically that allow me to get a little more loft on the ball,” he said. “That’s been a reason that I’ve been able to hit for a little more power this year.”

Bears ready to get back to work after loss

Nivens said getting back to work is all that he and his teammates can do after Tuesday night’s stinker. The Bears got to Illinois-Chicago for three games this weekend before going to Columbia for a rematch with Mizzou next Tuesday.

The next chance to catch Nivens and the Bears at home is a three-game series against Belmont, starting with an 11 a.m. game on April 20.

“There’s a lot of games we wish we could have back,” Nivens said. “We did lose a lot of close games, games where it was one or two swings away or one or two pitches away from it being a different outcome.

“We’re not satisfied with the first half of the season, but there definitely are some positives that we’re taking going into the second half. Baseball, you get to play almost every day. That’s the beauty of it. Back to the drawing board and get after it on Friday.”

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton