Missouri sophomore Paige Lowary was terrified to pitch against Michigan on March 3 in Fullerton, Calif.
It had nothing to do with a ferocious Wolverines lineup that ranks first in the nation in runs per game (8.31) and on-base percentage (.466) as well as third in batting average (.353), home runs per game (1.54) and slugging percentage (.608).
“It’s the first game I pitched after getting hit in the face, so that’s why I was terrified out there,” Lowary said.
Five days earlier, in a loss against Oregon, Lowary was struck by a comebacker above the left eye. She reentered that game, but hadn’t pitched again since the shock and adrenaline wore off.
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“That whole week I was just a mess during practice, but I knew they wanted me to be ready for that (Michigan) game,” Lowary said. “I don’t think I was ready mentally at all. It kind of — well, not kind of — it obviously showed.”
The Wolverines, 49-5, tagged Lowary — who walked seven, hit two batters and allowed six hits — for 11 runs, all earned, in three innings during a 13-0, run rule-shortened win.
It was the start of a long road to recovery for Lowary, but nearly three months later she’s throwing as well as she ever has and last weekend became the only pitcher in NCAA history to win three consecutive run-rule shutouts during a regional sweep.
Washington is the only other team in the super-regional era to sweep through its three games with run-rule shutouts, but the 2014 Huskies used two pitchers.
“This is the best I’ve felt overall probably ever or at least this year,” Lowary said. “I’ve been struggling ever since I got hit in the face with my control. I’ve missed my spots and given up some runs, but this past weekend I felt awesome.”
Junior catcher Kirsten Mack said Lowary, her batterymate of two years, finally looks like herself again.
Subconsciously, even though Lowary started wearing a facemask to prevent another head injury, she worked the corners exclusively after her injury in an effort to avoid contact.
“That’s when we saw the walks, because she also was trying to overthrow and that led to the control issues,” Mack said. “She was scared to throw it over the plate, so she was trying to strike everybody out, like, ‘If they can’t hit it, I can’t get hit.’ ”
Lowary occasionally flashed her past form. She dominated Alabama and Tennessee in back-to-back weekends, stymied Kentucky in mid-April and twirled a complete-game shutout in the regular-season finale against South Carolina.
“There have been games here or there that I felt really good, but never back-to-back games or three in a row …,” Lowary said. “The injury was always in the back of my head. Sometimes, when I would throw a certain pitch, I’d be a little hesitant and my mechanics would be a little off. I’d end up throwing a ball, but last weekend showed me that I am really over it.”
Lowary allowed on seven hits and four walks, while striking out 13 in 16 innings during regional play.
She relied heavily on the riseball she developed last summer during a stint with the USA Softball Junior National Team.
That’s the pitch she had the most trouble commanding after her injury, but it mixed well with her dropball, an occasional drop-curveball and a developing changeup in wins against BYU and Nebraska twice.
“The regional was really a confidence-booster for me. Those games meant a lot mentally for me …,” Lowary said. “I watched the games over again afterwards on TV and I heard the commentator say that I looked like I had a little swagger out there. I guess that’s the first time I felt like I had a little swagger and confidence.”
That confidence and swagger she effused permeated Mizzou’s dugout.
“I wasn’t really pitching to batters,” Lowary said. “I was pitching to Kirsten’s glove and wasn’t worried about hits or anything, because I had complete confidence we were going to win.”
The Tigers, 42-14, hope to carry that momentum to Ann Arbor, Mich., where a sold-out Wilpon Complex awaits with a berth in the Women’s College World Series on the line in a best-of-three series.
“I hope Michigan looks at that (March 3) game and thinks, ‘We have to play them in super regionals? This is a piece of cake,’ ” Lowary said.
Coach Ehren Earleywine promised Michigan would be in for a fight and his squad believes it’s ready.
“We’re ready and we’re focused,” Mack said. “We didn’t play well against (Michigan) earlier this season, but we’re a whole different team than we were when we played them.”
Ann Arbor Super Regional
Best-of-three, winner advances to Women’s College World Series
Game 1: No. 15 Missouri (42-14) at No. 2 Michigan (49-5), 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Missouri at Michigan, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
*-Game 3: Missouri at Michigan, 2 p.m. (ESPNU)