A little more than 24 hours before the biggest game of the season, Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine was still unsure whether his best pitcher, Chelsea Thomas, would take the mound.
“Most of it is going to (come down to) how good Chelsea feels,” Earleywine said Thursday. “If she’s feeling better than she has (been) leading up the last four weekends, there’s the potential (for her to start).”
Now, there is little doubt Thomas, the Southeastern Conference’s reigning pitcher of the year with a 22-4 record and 1.23 ERA, will pitch for the Tigers in the four-team, double-elimination regional this weekend at University Field.
The question is whether Earleywine will try to save Thomas for Saturday and Sunday by starting his No. 2 pitcher, Nicole Hudson, in No. 6 Missouri’s opening game against unranked Stony Brook at 5:30 p.m. Friday.
Adding to the quandary is the belief that Thomas has exertional compartment syndrome, the symptoms of which have lingered since early April but were officially diagnosed a week ago, according to Earleywine.
“She has overdeveloped forearm muscles, and when she exerts them, they swell,” Earleywine said. “And when they swell, they push on the nerves…and when the nerves get pushed upon, the hand gets numbness and tingling.”
Translation: Thomas’ hand gets numb when she throws too many pitches over a short amount of time. But to advance to next week’s Super Regional – the winner of which will head to the Women’s College World Series – Missouri, 35-11, will need to win at least three games in three days – starting Friday.
Considering Thomas’ dominance and the drop-off that comes with pitching Hudson, who has a 10-6 record and 4.76 ERA, Earleywine’s dilemma is clear, though he noted that Stony Brook, 35-23, might be a good matchup for Hudson on paper.
“They have a lot of good high-ball hitters in their lineup, and that actually bodes well for Nicole because she’s more of a down-ball pitcher,” Earleywine said. “So there’s that factor to weigh in.”
There’s also this: After pitching three games in the SEC tournament last week, Thomas said she hasn’t thrown at all this week and has been experimenting with different ways to relief tension in her arm. That includes Kinesio tape, which stretched from the top of her right shoulder down to her arm when she spoke to reporters Thursday.
“I’m trying anything we can to get some relief,” Thomas said. “It kind of takes a percentage of tension away from the muscle, I think. It’s really subtle.”
Thomas, however, doubts she’ll wear the tape while she pitches this weekend. Earleywine said he expects to know whether she’ll start around noon Friday, but the fact is, whether she takes the mound or not against Stony Brook, he considers the game a must-win – lest the Tigers be forced to the loser’s bracket, where they could face a busy Saturday and effectively have their backs against the wall.
“If we don’t show up Friday, our season will be over this weekend,” Earleywine said. “I’m trying to make that as crystal clear to the players as possible. You have to treat Friday’s game like a championship game because if that goes awry, we’re in big trouble.”