COLUMBIA — With its back against the wall Friday, there was little doubt Missouri’s softball team needed its offense to step up if the Tigers wanted to advance to the Women’s College World Series.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
In the end, not even a strong performance by star pitcher Chelsea Thomas would help the Tigers prevail in lieu of that, as Washington won 1-0 to sweep the best-of-three NCAA super regional series at University Field.
“We couldn’t make an adjustment,” said Missouri senior catcher Jenna Marston, who was part of a lineup that had more errors in the series (seven) than hits (six). “We faced a dropball pitcher yesterday and got on top of everything, and today we got a riseball pitcher and swung underneath everything. You can’t win ballgames like that.”
Especially at this juncture of the season. The series win was sweet revenge for Washington, 43-15, which lost to Missouri, 38-14, in the same round in 2011.
“It’s definitely better than what happened two years ago,” said Washington ace Kaitlin Inglesby, who closed out Friday’s game after losing both super regional games to the Tigers in 2011.
But while the Huskies needed a seventh-inning rally to mount a comeback in their 2-1 win on Thursday, a strong start propelled them on Friday.
Missouri opened the top of the first with a legitimate scoring threat, as Mackenzie Sykes powered a pitch to deep center that seemed destined to clear the fence. But Washington’s Kylee Lahners reached over the wall and caught the ball, robbing Sykes of a two-run home run.
“It was the greatest feeling of my life,” Washington starting pitcher Bryana Walker said with a grin about the catch.
The Huskies’ momentum continued in the bottom of the inning, when Victoria Hayward smashed a 2-0 pitch to right off Thomas for a solo home run that put the Huskies up 1-0.
Missouri again threatened Walker, 19-7, in the fourth when Nicole Hudson led off with a walk, but Sykes, the next batter, struck out and pinch-runner Carlie Rose was thrown out trying to steal second on the failed hit-and-run.
Missouri’s plate struggles aside, however, Thomas was settling in nicely, overcoming fielding errors in two separate innings by third baseman Angela Randazzo, holding the Huskies to two hits and one run through five innings.
The Tigers finally made a bid to end their offensive ineptitude in the top of the sixth, when Emily Crane and Marston opened with a pair of singles. The Huskies then turned to Inglesby, who started game one on Thursday.
Inglesby got the first out on a fielder’s choice, and Sykes grounded out, putting runners on second and third with two outs for first baseman Kelsea Roth. Roth, however, grounded out to shortstop Jenny McNeill, who ended the inning with a strong throw to first that ended the Tigers’ best scoring threat of the game.
Washington seemed primed to pad its lead in the bottom of the sixth, when Thomas issued a leadoff walk to Hayward, who advanced to second and later third when the umpires said Roth stepped off first before a routine groundout (MU’s third error of the game). This put runners on first and third with one out, but the Tigers avoided disaster when shortstop Corrin Genovese gathered in a grounder by the next batter and gunned the runner down at home, saving a run.
Thomas forced the next batter to ground out, setting the stage for the seventh inning, when Inglesby sat the Tigers down in order, leaving the Tigers pondering what could have been.
Had the Tigers won game two, they would have forced a winner-take-all game three later in the evening, one that Thomas — who ends her senior season with a 24-6 record — insists she would have been ready to pitch, despite lingering arm problems and the fact she threw 194 pitches in the first two games of the regional.
“I knew yesterday that I would have to throw two games today, so I prepared myself mentally,” said Thomas, who was noticeably emotional in the postgame news conference along with Marston, Hudson and coach Ehren Earleywine.
“I didn’t want to be done … it just wasn’t in the cards for us.”