COLUMBIA, MO. • With a 6-0 win over Illinois State behind him in Mizzou's opening game in the NCAA softball regional on Friday, there was plenty of reason for Tigers coach Ehren Earleywine to smile.
His offense, which has struggled much of the season, let loose for six runs and nine hits in six innings. Even the outs were hard hit.
"This is like the happiest night for me as far as our offense is concerned," Earleywine said. "We have had nights we may have scored more runs than six, but tonight every out was an out they had to earn. We had a plan and they stayed with it. That's the hard part."
"Every at-bat it seemed like it was a pretty productive at-bat," said right fielder Ashley Fleming, whose two-run double in the first inning staked No. 9 Mizzou (44-12) to a 2-0 lead and changed the complexion of the game. "There weren't many we gave away, swinging at the wrong pitches. I think we've been capable of doing that, but at times things have not gone the way we wanted it to. We have very good bats in our lineup, and this is the time we want to come through."
The Tigers will face DePaul, a 3-0 winner over Massachusetts in the other game Friday, today at 3 p.m., with the winner advancing to Sunday's championship game. The loser of that game will have to play again at 8 tonight against Illinois State or UMass for a spot on Sunday.
If the offense can keep going the way it did Friday, and with ace Chelsea Thomas pitching the way she did, chances are good for Mizzou. Thomas allowed two hits and struck out six in six innings, and with a 6-0 lead after six, Earleywine was able to use Bailey Erwin in the seventh to close out the game, saving some wear and tear on Thomas' arm. Thomas threw 95 pitches, but Earleywine is prepared to depend on her this weekend. "I wouldn't say it was my best outing of the year," said Thomas, who is looking to get more outs with fewer pitches. "Luckily we have a couple more games this weekend."
Thomas didn't have much trouble Friday. She walked Illinois State leadoff hitter Jhavon Hamilton, and Hamilton got to third on a stolen base and a wild pitch, but Thomas struck out Lizzie Andrews looking and Elizabeth Kay swinging to get out of the inning. ISU (35-22) got only one runner past first the rest of the game, and both of its hits came with two outs in the inning.
Letting runners get on base seems to bring out the best in Thomas. ISU had three at-bats with a runner on second, and Thomas got a strikeout each time.
A spotty offense has been a problem for Mizzou all season, but it wasn't the case Friday. Mackenzie Sykes led off the first with a walk and she and Jenna Marston were both safe when a grounder to short left ISU's Lindsey Greene with no usable options for an out. Fleming, the only consistent offensive player for the Tigers this season, coming into the game hitting .372, doubled to left-center to score two runs. Mizzou added a run in the fifth with a single and an error and then put the game away in the sixth with three runs on six hits, including a two-run homer to left by freshman Kelsea Roth, her seventh of the season.
DePaul 3, Massachusetts 0 • After being held without a hit by UMass' Sara Plourde for the first five innings, DePaul (36-20) used three singles and a walk in the sixth inning to advance to the winner's bracket. DePaul starter Kirsten Verdun allowed just two hits, and just one in the final six innings.