Sam Gause photo via MUtigers.com
Well, let's keep this going, shall we? Now #11 Mizzou survived the week unscathed (though it did not always look so good at points) and moves on to one of their two biggest conference series of the season. No mid-week games this week, as the Tigers will head to Austin a day early to take on the #3 Texas Longhorns for a Thurs/Sat "weekend" series. Thursday and Friday will have games starting at 7pm with the finale kicking off at noon on Saturday so both teams can return home prior to the holiday.
MU Since Last We Talked:
Mizzou dominated in three games this week and looked perfectly mediocre in the other two. The first of those mediocre two was the first game of the week on Wednesday afternoon against Evansville. The Tigers would take an eventual 4-2 win, but Kristen Nottelmann was less than solid in the circle, walking six. The offense never really got going against a pretty terrible opponent, scoring only three earned runs on five hits, and the defense committed two errors. But all in all, a win was a win and the Tigers came back in the late-afternoon-cap to score an easy 7-0 win. Chelsea Thomas was as stout as ever, giving up one hit and one walk in 4.1 innings, striking out 11 in the process. Frosh Bailey Erwin, who has not started many games of late but is getting some somewhat consistent, late-inning work, got her first career save with the final 2.2 innings. Ashley Fleming, Rachel Hay and Kelsi Roth each went yard as the Tigers finally cracked the Aces' pitching in their second-go-round through the lineup, scoring all seven runs in innings 4-6.
That brought us to the weekend and an important home series against a down but certainly not out (and now #25) Baylor squad. Mizzou got the start it needed on Friday night, waiting around just a bit before eventually winning convincingly, 6-1. Early solo HRs by Corrin Genovese and Nicole Hudson staked the Tigers to a 2-0 lead before Lindsey Muller put the game out of reach with a 5th inning grand slam. Thomas was pulled after five innings, giving up just three hits and two walks while setting down seven. Erwin cleaned up the last two innings and gave up a single, albeit unearned run. Saturday (in front of a regional TV audience) saw the Tigers struggle at the plate against Liz Paul. Krisin Nottelmann threw one bad pitch, and all of a sudden, the Tigers were down 2-0 entering the bottom of the sixth. But Nicole Hudson came to the rescue, crushing a bases-loaded offering and staking the Tigers to a 4-2 lead that Chelsea Thomas would not relingquish in the seventh, earning her second save of the season. The finale on Sunday had Mizzou get out early and often, with Roth striking her second HR of the week as part of a seven-run burst in the opening two innings. The Tigers would not push across the eighth run, but they would not need it as Thomas gave up only two hits and two walks while setting down 10 for her 14th win of the season. Mizzou now sits at 28-5 overall, 7-2 in conference and in third place in the league. They are (as of 4/2) sitting 18th in RPI per this poll. A top-16 finish there would be desirable to help bolster Mizzou's hopes of hosting (at least) another NCAA Regional.
So that brings us to this weekend's opponent in Texas (all games available on LHN should you be one of the "fortunate" few who actually has access to it). With Mizzou two games back in the loss column, they really need to take two out of three (even at this somewhat early junction of the conference season) to stay around the top. How has UT gone undeafeated in conference with only two losses overall? Let's take a look.
Texas has played a decent schedule to get to their overall record to 31-2, though as the #3 team in the country, their schedule may be void of that really significant win. No one started the year better than UT did, winning their first five games by a combined score of 60-0 (including wins of 23-0 and 15-0) in the Texas Classic. They took their first loss of the season (5-1) to #5 Florida before scoring wins over a now ranked #12 UCLA 5-4 (Mizzou defeated 7-5) and Nebraska (ranked at the time, not receiving votes currently) 3-0 (Mizzou lost 6-4). They also went FAR west to the Spring Fling Tournament in Hawaii where they scored a 4-0 win over host #19 Hawaii before losing their other game this year 6-3 to #1 Cal. They recently completed a three-game sweep of a "ranked" (depending on which poll you used that week, but not receiving votes currently) New Mexico team with wins of 2-1 (9), 7-3 and 5-0. The Longhorns took two early games from Texas Tech and swept Iowa State in conference thus far, so UT is 19-0 at home and 5-0 in conference, though the UT website would have you believe they magically played a 6th conference game in there somewhere. They jumped up to #3 from #6 this past week by staying perfect and having a couple of teams fall through them in the polls.
In a word? Scary. The Horns have four (pretty much) everyday players over .400 and the other five are all over .300. As a team, they are hitting .368 on the year (#2 in the nation behind UCLA) with 235 runs in 33 games (7.12 per game). They have 38 HRs with 107 BB's to 109 K's (nice balance there). They have also stolen 63 bases in 78 attempts. Individually, they are led by sophomore INF Karina Scott, who in 22 starts is hitting a team-high .444/.523/.907, all team highs. She also has a second-best 7 HR's (to junior Taylor Hoagland's 9 HR's). Also extremely dangerous is senior infielder Lexy Bennett, who is hitting .429/.492/.724 with a team-high 41 RBI's and 42 hits. She shares the hits lead with sophomore outfielder Brejae Washington, who is hitting a solid .408 herself with 20 steals in 25 attempts. Run leader Hoagland (38) also has solid speed to accompany her 9 blasts, as she has swiped 13 bases in 15 tries. There is power, good speed and contact hitters all throughout this lineup which has not been shutout all season to date.
UT is not giving away much in the field with a solid .975 fielding percentage. Those 21 errors have led to only 9 unearned runs (of 51). Only one person has more than three, with sophomore infielder Taylor Thom taking those honors with ten. The Horns have given up just 11 stolen bases in 15 chances so far this year.
So what goes best with dominant hitting? Pretty dominant pitching. The Horns feature four pitchers, none of whom have an ERA above 1.62. As a team they sit at 1.36 with a batting average against of .165. I believe the ace of the staff remains junior Blaire Luna, who is 12-1 on the year with an ERA of 1.29. She has tossed the most innings (81.1), giving up just 47 hits and 35 BB's while striking out an impressive 134 (#2 in the country in K's/7 at 11.5). I imagine the Tigers may also see junior Kim Bruins who saw action this past Saturday, so she may be the middle starter. Bruins is 6-1 on the campaign with a 1.56 ERA in 40.1 innings with only 10 BB's and 36 K's. They could also see sophomore Rachel Fox who is 9-0 on the year with a team-best 1.23 ERA over 68.1 innings with only 14 BB's and 59 K's. Either way you cut it, the Tigers will see someone who, while not COMPLETELY dominant, is going to be be very tough sledding for a squad that has struggled at times at the plate.
Two out of three on the road against this team is a tall order, but I do believe it is what Mizzou needs to do if they want to keep their conference championships hopes in a strong position. UT can hit it all over the yard, take extra bases when they can (either by stretching singles to doubles or just swiping the base later) and does not make a lot of mistakes in the field. All of this helps take the pressure off of a pitching staff that has one pitcher in Luna who is considered one of the best in the nation, as well as others to back her up.
That said, the Horns may have some vulnerability out there. Though this squad is always in the conference and national title hunt, they have not really been tested too often (and have not passed them when they have). This is not a young team (all starters are sophomore or older), but Mizzou would represent their best win(s) of the season. Mizzou has had little success against UT recently, as they split their two games last year but were swept (and swept hard) two years ago when last they travelled down to Austin. Can Chelsea Thomas shut down a team like this? She no-hit UW earlier in the year, and they are a team currently hiting at a .331 clip (13th in the nation). Thomas is now #2 in the nation in ERA (.02 behind Nevins of USF) It can be done, but Mizzou will need to play some of their best softball of the season to do so.