COLUMBIA — There really should be a warning.
Chelsea Thomas, a freshman pitcher on the Missouri softball team, enters the circle from behind and pauses. Her powerful 5-foot-10 frame might be intimidating if her face wasn’t so friendly and the sparkling bow on the ribbon tied around her hair wasn’t so, well, cute.
Missouri's four pitchers have four of the five lowest ERAs among Big 12 pitchers who have pitched at least five innings this season. Missouri leads the league with a 0.76 team ERA. Oklahoma State is second with a team ERA of 1.74.
Junior Jana Hainey: 5-0 in nine appearances, 0.24 ERA in 29 innings, 25 strikeouts, 10 walks
Freshman Chelsea Thomas: 8-2 in 11 appearances, 0.77 ERA in 63.1 innings, 55 strikeouts, 16 walks
Freshman Kristin Nottelmann: 3-0 in seven appearances, 0.84 ERA in 16.2 innings, 14 strikeouts, 5 walks
Senior Stacy Delaney: 2-1 in six appearances, 1.22 ERA in 28.2 innings, 32 strikeouts, 4 walks
No. 14 Missouri (18-3) vs. Northern Iowa (14-4)
WHEN: 3 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
Stepping onto the rubber, Thomas rotates and spins the bright yellow softball in her right hand, loosening up a right arm that made Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine do a doubletake the first time he saw it in person.
Earleywine was in his first year as coach of the Tigers when he received a recruiting video from Thomas, then a high school junior in Pleasantville, Iowa.
“Her dad had been sending some emails to me and (Missouri pitching) coach (Mark) Redburn saying I have a daughter that throws really hard. We get hundreds of those emails,” explained Earleywine, admitting he was skeptical at the time.
“Then they sent a tape, and tapes are so blurry and fuzzy, and you can’t really get much out of them. But we could tell in the video that she was throwing hard,” said Earleywine, placing an inordinate amount of emphasis on the “was” in his last sentence.
Missouri was in a close race for the Big 12 Conference championship at the time, but Earleywine still decided to skip a day of practice to make the eight-hour round trip to watch Thomas throw for 30 minutes.
“His facial expressions were pretty funny when he kept looking at the radar gun, and I was like ‘Oh gosh,’” recalled Thomas with a laugh. “I was so nervous. That was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life probably.”
Videos and emails hadn’t properly warned the bewildered coach.
“The first pitch she threw was 73 miles an hour on the radar gun,” Earleywine said.
For some perspective, a 73 mph pitch from a softball player throwing from a distance of 43 feet gives a batter the same amount of time to react as a 102.7 mph pitch from a baseball player throwing from 60 feet, 6 inches.
Earleywine’s quick visit to scout Thomas paid off. Before most other schools started to hear whispers about the hard-throwing kid from Iowa, Thomas had verbally committed to Missouri.
“I knew this was where I wanted to be,” she said, recalling her tour of the team’s facilities and meeting the rest of the coaching staff.
* * *
Finished fidgeting, Thomas’ knees bend ever so slightly as she brings her glove across her body to meet the ball beside her right hip.
Working together, her straight arms come forward, floating up above her waist almost reaching the gold-trimmed black script spelling out Missouri on the front of her jersey.
In the first sign of any urgency, Thomas’s glove plunges down and lands squarely on her right thigh. Now bent slightly at the waist, she is ready to deliver her pitch.
Before the season started, Earleywine made it clear he didn’t want Thomas to struggle with the jump to collegiate competition.
“If you’ve got a kid who’s throwing as hard as anybody in the country, and she has good movement and now she has command of her pitches — I mean, to me, that’s a formula for not only being able to start and play, but maybe ending up being one of the better pitchers that there are in softball,” Earleywine said. “I think, not only is she going to pitch, I think she’s going to be a showstopper.”
Thomas had struggled with her command during the fall season, though, which forced her to make two tough decisions.
First, though she is a good enough batter to compete for a spot in Missouri’s offensive lineup, Thomas gave up hitting to focus on her performance in the circle. Second, while many students were sleeping late and lounging on the couch watching television during winter break, Thomas was heading to her high school gym with her dad to work on her stuff — even on Christmas Day.
“I actually threw six days a week, and I really worked on hitting spots and getting my spin down and just getting under control I guess,” she said. “In the fall, (I had) nerves definitely just starting off college, but I feel definitely more confident now pitching.”
Initially Earleywine thought Thomas would be able to throw her dropball as hard as she could and watch as hitters helplessly whiffed as the ball whizzed past, but he and his staff soon found that wasn’t true.
“We got smarter, and it made her better because we were holding her back, because we were just throwing her hard dropball thinking there’s no way they’re going to hit 70 mph with movement, and we we’re surprised that they are, to be honest with you,” said Earleywine, whose staff calls every pitch from the dugout.
It hasn’t taken long for Thomas to develop a reliable changeup to confuse hitters, though she never threw the pitch in high school.
“Do I think she’s as dominant as what I did before the season started? Yes,” Earleywine said last week. “Is it in the way that I thought it was going to be? No. We’re going to need to throw more offspeed.”
Thomas begins to straighten her body. Her left leg rises unusually high from the back of the rubber, and she once again reveals the ball in her right hand to her opponent. Then smoothly, slowly even, her arm completes the windmill motion and she just lets the ball go.
It looks too easy. There is no violent snapping of the hips, no strain on her face and no sound as she generates all that power.
She never even stops chewing her gum.
Thomas started her Tigers career with a one-hit shutout of Virginia Tech, a team that appeared at the College World Series a year ago.
She is 8-2 with a 0.77 ERA in 11 appearances. In 63 1/3 innings, she has struck out 55 batters and walked 16.
One of her losses came in a disappointing relief appearance against San Diego State in extra innings. The other came against No. 5 UCLA in the first game Earleywine and his staff were committed to changing speeds regularly.
“It was clear that Chelsea was the best player on both teams,” Earleywine said about the March 1 loss. “You could tell by UCLA’s mannerisms that they knew that they had locked up with something a little bit bigger than themselves.”
It didn’t matter that day. The Bruins tied the game when a catchable ball fell in the outfield and won when a pitch that bounced off the catcher’s chest allowed the winning run to score in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“They’re a good team,” Thomas said later. “We were looking at their scouting report before, and I was like, “Yep, we’re going to see where I’m at right here.”
Thomas learned something that day that she never really doubted but had never really had a chance to prove. She could beat the best, even if Missouri didn’t that day.
She hasn’t given up a run since. After pitching a three-hit shutout against SIU-Edwardsville, Thomas pitched back-to-back no hitters last weekend in Springfield against Southeast Missouri State and Missouri State.
Her 12 innings of no-hit softball helped earn her the Big 12 Pitcher of the Week Award, a title no Missouri player had won since 2005.
Perhaps a warning has finally been issued.
“Yeah, I’m in college now,” Thomas said before making the weekend trip, “but they are the same girls that I’ve been playing as I’ve been growing up. It’s the same. I mean I’m getting older, too, so it’s like each year we move up, all of us do together, so it hasn’t been a huge difference.”