Defense is the key for Missouri during NCAA regional play, which begins Friday at University Field.
Tigers coach Ehren Earleywine has been clear that his squad needs to play better with the leather to return to the super-regional round, but the biggest question entering the weekend centers around the offense.
Freshman third baseman Amanda Sanchez rolled her right ankle on a play at first base in the regular-season finale May 3 against Florida.
She’s been in a walking boot since, and her status remains in doubt for No. 10 seed Missouri, 29-14, entering a 3 p.m. first pitch Friday against Indiana State, 26-29. The tine of the game was moved up Thursday night.
“The only thing that can heal it is rest,” Earleywine said. “She’s walking around pretty good, but the big test is going to be Friday. If she can run with no limp, they will allow her to play. We haven’t tried it yet.”
Sanchez gutted out several plate appearances during the SEC Tournament, going three for six with a hit-by-pitch against Mississippi State and Auburn, but had a pronounced limp when running to first base.
After an MRI and follow-up X-rays Tuesday, doctors said they would not clear her for duty without physical improvement, according to Earleywine.
It’s a potentially big blow to the Tigers’ lineup, which generally has Sanchez penciled in at the cleanup spot. She is batting .333 this season and boasts a team-high 14 home runs with 52 RBIs.
“I’m trying to stay optimistic but planning for the worst,” Earleywine said. “Losing her bat out of the lineup would be really critical. Losing her defense is not as big of a deal.”
Missouri, which has committed 64 errors that led to 54 unearned runs, doesn’t need any more headaches on defense.
“Our defense has kind of let down our pitchers quite a bit,” senior first baseman Kelsea Roth said. “Unfortunately, it happened, but we went back this week and really focused on it.”
Senior Angela Randazzo, who has played third for Missouri in past seasons, is the most likely candidate to replace Sanchez, but freshman Paige Bange also is an option.
Roth said there’s been precious little rhythm with the infield defense all season, “so I don’t think it throws it off any more than it has been thrown off this whole year,” she said.
Roth added, “We’re all familiar with Angie. She’s been there since I’ve been a freshman too, so … I’m completely comfortable and know what she’s capable of, (senior shortstop) Corrin (Genovese) knows what she’s capable of and even (junior second baseman) Sami (Fagan). … Angie can get it done. We’re all very confident in her.”
That’s a good thing, because third-base defense could prove critical in the regional opener.
“Indiana State, they’re small ball,” Earleywine said. “That’s all they do, so it’s a concern.”
Defending against bunts and slaps tests a third baseman, so whoever starts at the hot corner must be on their toes.
“I kind of let (Randazzo and Bange) duel it out in practice this week and there wasn’t a big differential between the two, so I’ not sure what I’m going to do,” Earleywine said. “It will probably come down to who I have more confidence hitting.”
Randazzo batted .256 with five home runs in 117 at-bats this season, while Bange is five for nine with two doubles and a homer.
Ace pitcher Tori Finucane, a sophomore from Germantown, Md., missed the regional last season with a thumb injury, and Missouri faltered in the championship against Nebraska, missing out on the super regional for the first time in six seasons.
“I think they all remember it,” Earleywine said. “It’s the first time we’ve lost one in quite some time. You don’t lose that feeling. That sting has stayed with me until right now. Hopefully, we can get that taste out of our mouth and get back to the supers.”
Finucane has been banged up again, battling a rib injury in recent weeks after an April 22 collision with catcher Kirsten Mack while fielding a popup against Iowa.
But she threw Monday and Wednesday with little pain, Earleywine said, and he’s also confident in freshman left-hander Paige Lowary, who fared well late in the regular season against LSU and Florida.
The regional kicks off at noon with Kansas, 38-13, against Louisville, 30-17.
Columbia regional softball schedule
Game 1 — Louisville, 30-17, vs. Kansas, 38-13, noon*
Game 2 — Indiana State, 26-29, at Missouri, 39-14, 3 p.m.*
Game 3 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 2:30 p.m.
Game 4 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 5 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 4 winner vs. Game 3 loser, 7:30 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, noon
Game 7 — If necessary (if Game 5 winner wins Game 6)
* Time change from original schedule