By Darren Hellwege
Through the month of May, something’s been missing. No, Chelsea Thomas didn’t turn into an ordinary pitcher—one couldn’t imagine her ever being that. She was still gave up few hits and fewer runs. She even no-hit DePaul to clinch the championship of the NCAA Regional.
The things that really mattered were still there. But that little something extra—the remarkable strikeout numbers, smashing records even as Thomas is just in her sophomore year—had fallen off. After striking out opponents at an incredible pace, the numbers fell off during the month of May. At one point Thomas struck out at least 10 in five of six games, but only once in the last eight games did she strike out as many as 10. In the last two against DePaul only four strikeouts were rung up in each game.
On Saturday night, Tiger fans were delighted to see the return of the Chelsea of old, as Thomas struck out 13 and got hitting support from Nicole Hudson as the Tigers beat 12th-ranked Washington 4-0 in the first game of the NCAA Super Regional at University Field on the Columbia campus. The Tigers are now just one win away from a third straight trip to Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series.
The teams will play at 6 p.m. Sunday, with the third and final game to follow if the Tigers lose.
“She answered any questions I may have had,” said Tiger coach Ehren Earleywine following the win. “It was a great outing.”
Earleywine also said the Huskies may be in for a rude shock tomorrow if they think they now have Thomas figured out. Noting that the damp weather affected her ability to throw the rise ball, he said “She threw a lot of drops today, she has some surprises tomorrow.”
Huskies coach Heather Tarr was also impressed with Thomas, calling her “one of the best pitchers we’ve faced.” “She had good control and command, and got ahead early.”
The Tigers run support came primarily from Nicole Hudson. Hudson, who came into the game with 12 RBIs in the last nine games, continued to be productive. She drove in Jenna Marston with a sharp double in the first, then in the third hit a home run to dead center that hit high up on the scoreboard.
The offensive outburst brought a happy ending to one of the most difficult weeks of Hudson’s life. Hudson is a native of Webb City, just a few miles from the city of Joplin, devastated by last weekend’s EF-5 tornado which killed over 100 people. Although her family was safe from the storm, a Domino’s Pizza restaurant owned by her father was smashed to bits by the tornado. “I feel real lucky to represent the area, it’s the best place in the world and I’m just glad to be able to represent it on national TV.” She said family members including her father, Shane, were at the game Saturday.
The Tigers last two runs came in the fifth when speed and Husky mistakes the primary factors. Things started badly when Washington starter Kaitlin Ingelsby walked the last player anyone would want to put on base, Tiger speedster Rhea Taylor, who proceeded to steal her 42nd base of the season. After Marston and Hudson were walked, Fleming grounded out to second base allowing Taylor to scoot across the plate with the Tigers third run.
The Tigers and Huskies play at 6 p.m. on Sunday, with a Tiger win locking in their third straight trip to Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series. Both Mizzou’s Chelsea Thomas and the Huskies’ Kaitlyn Ingelsby are expected to start the game. Should Washington win, the third and deciding game of the Super Regional will be played immediately afterward. Both games are scheduled to be nationally televised on ESPN2.
And while they have their backs against the wall, UW’s Jenn Selling expressed confidence they can come back. “This team gets tougher in tough situations. We wish tomorrow would come right now.”
• The Tigers set another attendance record today with 2,595 in attendance, breaking the mark set earlier this season against Texas. The stands were full, with fans standing several deep all along the outfield fence, and more than a dozen watching from across the street on the putting green at A.L. Gustin Golf Course.
• Earleywine indicated that Princess Krebs may get the start in left field on Sunday. Ingelsby is known as a drop ball pitcher, and Mizzou sent Lisa Simmons to left tonight, both for her ability as a low-ball hitter and her outstanding defense. However, the Tigers saw on Saturday that Ingelsby was leaving her ball high in the zone and that’s a style of pitch more suited to Krebs.
• While people tend to think of the Pac-10 as the dominant conference in softball—and historically there’s very good reason for that—this year’s Women’s College World Series may have a very strong Big 12 feel. On Saturday both Oklahoma State and Oklahoma punched their tickets by winning Super Regionals. Oklahoma State is a surprising team to make the tournament after beating Houston in Stillwater, while the strong Sooners team of Patty Gasso knocked off Pac-10 power Arizona. In addition to Mizzou, one other team from the conference is one win away from a trip to Oklahoma City as Baylor beat Georgia in Athens 5-1 on Saturday. If the Lady Bears and Tigers win Sunday, half the field of the World Series will be from the Big 12. Alabama, Arizona State (which beat the Big 12’s Texas A&M) and Florida have already clinched berths in the World Series, and the eighth will go to either California or Kentucky, with Cal holding a 1-0 lead in that series.