Missouri has been without its ace, freshman Tori Finucane, throughout the NCAA regional softball tourney, which started Friday and wraps up Sunday at University Field.
Despite that handicap, and thanks to a pair of mostly brilliant performances by freshman lefthander Casey Stangel, the No. 15 seed Tigers advanced to the regional final with relative ease (excepting a dicey seventh inning in Friday’s opener against Bradley).
Still, life would be easier with Finucane available. Of that, there is no doubt, but Finucane’s season might be finished unless Missouri reaches the Women’s College World Series.
Tigers coach Ehren Earleywine, in an overt act of gamesmanship, told reporters Thursday that Finucane probably would throw all three days during the regional tournament.
Instead, after Stangel tossed 6 2/3 innings and senior Alora Marble, a Central Missouri transfer, bailed out Missouri with 1 1/3 innings in relief against the Braves, Earleywine revealed that Finucane was hurt.
He characterized the injury as a sprained thumb during Friday’s postgame press conference.
“We were doing a bunt drill,” Earleywine said. “I was bunting. I bunted a ball to the third baseman and Tori ran in for it. The third baseman fielded it. Tori was ducking to get out of the way of the throw. When she did, she fell down and tried to catch herself with her hand, fell on her thumb and sprained it.”
Finucane, who suffered the injury Tuesday, felt better Wednesday and Thursday, according to Earleywine.
“I had a fair amount of confidence that she was going to be able to throw (Friday),” he said.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Finucane’s thumb injury had taken a turn for the worse by that morning.
“She said, ‘I couldn’t squeeze the toothpaste out of the toothpaste holder,’” Earleywine said. “I was just hoping it was the toothpaste, that there was something in the thing. I took her down to the bullpen and said, ‘Just try to throw’ and she tried to throw a couple, but it just hurt too much.”
Earleywine scratched Finucane from Friday’s start and she had an MRI later that evening, which changed the diagnosis (and might keep her out of the Super Regional should Missouri advance for a seventh straight season with a win Sunday).
“The MRI actually shows that it’s not a ligament strain,” Earleywine said. “There are capsules on the end of ligaments — so that you know, I just learned that today — and both of those capsules are torn. That requires a 10-day shutdown for sure. So, no more questions about Tori for 10 days.”
He expressed no optimism when asked if it was retroactive to Tuesday, which might put Finucane in line to return Friday and be available for a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional series — probably at No. 2 seed Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
“She would not be available for Super Regionals,” Earleywine said.
That would be a huge blow for Missouri, but it also could be another dose of gamesmanship. Finucane, who wore a soft brace on the thumb, will visit more doctors this week.
She can’t grip a ball at the moment, which has relegated Finucane to a cheerleading role — and giving her a mild case of laryngitis (she lost her voice).
Stangel has performed admirably, and possibly will guide Missouri through the regional gauntlet by beating Nebraska on Sunday.
To take down the Crimson Tide, the Tigers almost certainly need to be at full strength, and that requires a healthy Finucane.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.