CORRECTION*: The article orginally stated that Missouri has four conference losses. The Tigers have three losses.
COLUMBIA — The Missouri softball team made winning the Big 12 title a little more difficult for itself Wednesday.
The Big 12-leading Tigers split a doubleheader with Iowa State, who is one spot out of the conference cellar, at University Field. Missouri's third* conference loss stripped away a chance to clinch a share of the conference title this weekend against No. 14 Oklahoma.
No. 10 Missouri needs to win three of its final four games if it hopes to win the program's second conference title.
“I think we made our situation a lot tougher today," Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said. "If we win today then the pressure’s on everybody else, but now we lose today, and now there’s some pressure on us.
"I told the girls after the game ... this is your season, this is your team and, for some of you seniors, this is your last opportunity to win a conference championship. So, the next four games will determine that, and your play will determine whether we win or lose that."
A couple of seniors played big parts in Missouri's win in game one. Stacy Delaney (13-2) earned a shutout in the 5-0 win and did not allow a runner to reach base until there were two outs in the fifth inning. Lindsey Ubrun's homer gave the Tigers a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning. The home run, Ubrun's 10th of the season, was one of the most impressive hits at University Field this year, landing well beyond the left field fence.
Freshman Chelsea Thomas started game two, her first game since March 21 after biceps tendinitis kept her out of action. Thomas struck out the first two batters she faced.
Things got a little strange after that.
Three straight batters recorded hits on balls that bounced off Thomas's glove to give the Cyclones a 1-0 lead. Then a failed force out at second base on a ground ball to the shortstop allowed another run to score. Finally, a dropped third strike on the next batter forced Thomas to strike out a fourth batter to end the inning.
“In her defense, it’s the first time the kid’s been on the mound significantly for a month, for that I guess I’ve got to give her a little bit of a break and time to get back and get back into the flow of things," Earleywine said of Thomas's inability to record an out on balls hit up the middle. "Hopefully she’ll field those balls when she’s in a routine a little bit better.”
Missouri appeared poised to overcome that start when two of its first three batters doubled in the bottom of the first inning to make the score 2-1. But Iowa State starter Rachel Zabriskie retired the next 19 batters in a row before Andee Allen reached on an error with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Ubrun followed with her second home run of the day, but the Tigers couldn't complete the rally and fell 4-3.
Thomas, who said sitting on the bench for four weeks was the worst thing she's done in her life, pitched 4 1/3 innings and gave up all four Iowa State runs.
“I didn’t expect her to dominate today," Earleywine said. "... She’s still trying to get her velocity back and her location back and that’s going to be a process. I’d say she’s probably 85 percent right now.”
Earleywine blamed his team's offense struggles on failing to take advantage of a wide strike zone in game two while Iowa State took full advantage. The disparity left the Tigers with a little more work than they'd hoped for on their way to the conference crown.
“You can’t win a Big 12 without some pressure, so we’re going to find out if we’re capable," Earleywine said.
The four-game stretch begins with Oklahoma (34-13, 11-4 in the Big 12), which was picked to win the Big 12 title and was ranked in the top 10 before the start of the season. The teams will play at 2 p.m. Saturday and at noon Sunday.
The Sooners swept Missouri (41-6, 11-3 in the Big 12) at home last year. If they repeat that performance this year at University Field, they will leap over Missouri in the Big 12 standings.
“We have a good home crowd, and it’s grown unbelievably this season in parallel with our winning, and I think our kids really respond to that," Earleywine said. "They feel comfortable here. Playing at Oklahoma last year was not a great experience ... so we are fortunate to have those games at home because if we do things right we get to do it in front of our people.”
Missouri has already had two crowds this year that were bigger than any crowd last season, and new bleachers have already been added beyond the left field fence in anticipation of a big crowd this weekend.