Mizzou wins regional softball title

COLUMBIA | As the change-up from Chelsea Thomas’ right hand slipped into the glove she held on the outside corner of home plate, Missouri catcher Megan Christopher erupted.

She thrust a fisted right hand into the air as an exclamation mark, not some sales job for home plate umpire Kevin Wallace. Strike three! Just had to be.

Only it wasn’t.

That didn’t come until one batter later when Missouri got the final called strike and out of a 1-0 softball triumph in the title game of the NCAA Tournament regional at MU’s University Field on Sunday. And an apology from Wallace, not for his call on the would-be final whiff, but for what it did to Christopher’s premature victory salute. “You made me look a little silly on that one,” Christopher told Wallace. “Well, sorry,” was Wallace’s response.

Given new life, DePaul’s Brittney Yniquez slapped a single up the middle that kept on the infield by a diving stop by MU shortstop Abby Vock.

Yet victory deferred was just as sweet when Thomas slipped a called third strike past DePaul pinch hitter Katelyn Braget to end the seventh inning and the game.

“I think he knew,” Christopher said. “The whole stadium knew it. They wanted to see Chelsea strike one more out.”

Thomas, a freshman pitcher now 15-4 with a 1.07 ERA over 233.2 innings, said: “I knew the whole game we were going to win.”

She knew it on Saturday, when 11th-ranked Missouri qualified for the regional final.

“We’re going to the Super Regional,” Thomas said.

For the second straight season.

There will be a date in a best of three series against UCLA, starting most probably on Friday at UCLA, the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament.

The two teams met previously on March 1 in the San Diego Classic, and the Bruins beat the Tigers 2-1 on a passed ball.

“We’re going to win,” Thomas said. “I’m glad to be facing them again.”

If not for Rhea Taylor’s opposite-field home run over the left field wall with two down and no one on base in the sixth inning, Missouri wouldn’t have beaten DePaul (30-14) in the regulation seven innings.

Normally, Taylor is a slap-hitter, a leadoff batter who looks to beat out ground balls, and bunts, and guide the ball between the infielders.

But given that Missouri wound up with just four hits for the game, MU Coach Ehren Earleywine turned Taylor loose to swing away.

She did so, on the first pitch from DePaul’s Becca Heteniak (26-9), and sent the ball high and deep into the stands behind the left-field wall.

“I watched that bad boy,” Taylor said.

When she touched home plate and ran into the arms of her teammates, she told herself: “Oh my God! I just scored us a run!”

DePaul Coach Eugene Lenti was just as incredulous.

“I told Taylor after the game,” Lenti said, “. . . You did your best (Vladimir) Guerrero imitation there. That ball was up and out significantly and she got the bat on the ball.

“That was a great pitcher’s pitch. That was no way, shape or form a hitter’s pitch.”

Earleywine figured it was all the more remarkable given Missouri’s inability to do much with Heteniak’s rise ball that started at chest level and sailed into the eyes.

“She just kind of ran into one,” Earleywine said. “If you swing at 150 of them like we did that game, eventually you are going to run into one.”

Taylor beat out a bunt in the fourth inning, giving her half of Missouri’s entire hit total. Gina Schneider doubled down the right-field line right after Taylor’s home run. Lindsey Ubrun singled in the seventh.

DePaul punched out five hits against Thomas, who countered with seven strikeouts and was the beneficiary of inning-ending double plays the first two innings.

At 48-9, Missouri now has won more games in a single season than any softball team in MU history. Softball joins men’s basketball and women’s soccer this season in setting sport victory records. All three teams won Big 12 Tournament titles.

Earleywine seemed most satisfied with winning for the MU softball fans.

“I feel like we’ve let ‘em down too many times,” Earleywine said. “As a Missouri fan my whole life, I understand that feeling.

“But hey, Mizzou athletics is on the rise. We’ve got 11 of our 20 sports are in the top 25. Everybody knows what basketball did. Football. Wrestling is unbelievable. And on and on and on.

“I grew up here,” said Earleywine, who graduated high school in Jefferson City. “I wanted to give the fans something they can be proud of.”

Sunday filled that bill. Even if it did not come quite as soon as Megan Christopher thought it should have.