By Richard Polen
Globe Sports Writer
The beginning of Brett Abell’s final season at Missouri Southern was surrounded by question marks.
Less than a year after he underwent Tommy John surgery, Abell returned to the Lions’ pitching staff hopeful that he could at least make a contribution as one of 10 seniors on the roster.
So far, Abell (4-3, 3.90 ERA) has four complete games and a shutout in 13 starts. His 98 strikeouts broke the school record of 94 set by Tim Luther in 1991.
But most of all, Abell’s pitching line is not yet complete. He will be the Lions’ starting pitcher against Pittsburg State at 2:30 p.m. today in the semifinals of the MIAA Postseason Tournament at CommunityAmerica Ballpark in Kansas City, Kan.
“I feel good. We get to play more,” said Abell, who sat out last season as a medical redshirt after he was 8-6 as a junior with a 4.52 ERA. He led the Lions in wins and strikeouts (74) and was an honorable mention all-MIAA selection in 2011.
“The start of the season was weird,” Abell said. “If you had told me I was going to break the strikeout record, I would have just laughed. I really have to give ‘Kus’ (pitching coach Jason Immekus) all the credit.
“He does well with our staff. He just gets it. If he could still play, he would. He has a lot of fire. Look at our stats. We’re always in the top three (in the MIAA) and he’s the reason for it.”
Abell is one of five Lions who have started at least eight games. The others are freshman Payton Walker (6-4, 2.89) and juniors Ryan Bates (7-2, 4.07), David Reese (4-6, 4.97) and Drew Noble (6-3, 5.34).
Senior left-hander Bo Bergen (3-0, 3.79) is tied with Reese for most appearances (23) and has three saves.
“It’s a tribute to the work these guys do in the weight room and the work they do between starts,” Immekus said. “We do a nice job of preparing these guys for their roles. By this time of the season, these guys know what their role is.”
The Lions defeated Northeastern (Okla.) State twice Sunday and won the best-of-three, first-round series two games to one. Pittsburg State advanced with a 9-7, 10-inning victory against Central Missouri in a series that was moved to Hays because of unplayable field conditions at Warrensburg.
The Lions were defeated in the first round last year by Fort Hays State 9-6.
“We just have to play well,” said Lions head coach Bryce Darnell. “I just hope we play good baseball. Our guys enjoy going up there. Some of them have been there two or three times. Last year, our guys were really disappointed with how poorly we played there.”
The Lions are batting .301 as a team, led by senior right fielder Dallas Burke, who had a three-run doube and a two-run home run Sunday against Northeastern State. Burke, batting .345, leads the team with 39 runs scored, 30 walks and an on-base percentage of .447.
“About eight weeks ago, I told them hopefully we’ll able to talk about something special in about eight weeks,” said Burke, who underwent surgery for a torn rotator cuff in January.
“I went to the tournament last year with Brett and it was very difficult,” he said. “Obviously, one of our goals was to make it to Kansas City. Making it there definitely is a start. It will be a dogfight against Pittsburg State. It always is.”
Second baseman Michael McCoy (.337), shortstop Thomas Wilson (.331), designated hitter Will Wagner (.329) and catcher Sam Ryan (.328) are among the Lions’ offensive leaders. Wagner leads the team in home runs (7) and RBI (37).
Tournament notes: The Lions were picked to finish sixth in the preseason MIAA coaches’ poll, while Pittsburg State was expected to finish ninth. The Lions took third place in the regular season while the Gorillas were seventh. ... This is the fourth tournament appearance for the Lions in six seasons under Darnell, who has a record of 5-6 in tournament games. The all-time series between the two teams dates back to 1972. The Lions are 52-31 against the Gorillas and 2-0 in the MIAA Tournament, winning 8-7 in 1994 and 8-7 in 12 innings in 2002.