COLUMBIA — The Missouri softball team got within three outs of the opportunity to play for an outright Big 12 championship.
Now, after a 6-2 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday in front of the first regular-season sellout in the history of University Field, the team must win its final three games of the regular season to guarantee a share of the title.
The Big 12-leading Tigers led second-place Oklahoma 2-1 entering the top of the seventh inning. Then it all fell apart.
Missouri left fielder Gina Schneider dropped a ball on the warning track to begin the inning. Then the Tigers couldn't record an out on Oklahoma's sacrifice bunt attempt, and runners ended up at second and third after no one covered second base. After that, Chelsea Thomas replaced Kristen Nottelman on the mound and promptly threw a wild pitch.
The tying run scored, but Thomas retired the batter and Nottelman re-entered to record the second out.
Then it all fell apart. For good.
A single, a walk, a 3-run home run later and one failed rally attempt later, 1,135 fans left with Missouri's championship hopes in as perilous a position as they had been in for weeks.
“We were a play or two shy in the last inning, especially the first play of the seventh inning," Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said. "I felt it changed the whole context of that game. We just let it slip away.”
The loss dropped No. 10 Missouri to 41-7 overall and 11-4 in the Big 12 while No. 14 Oklahoma improved to 36-13 overall and 12-4 in the Big 12. The teams will meet again at noon on Sunday.
“They understand that now all the chips are down for tomorrow," Earleywine said about his players. "If we win tomorrow we still have a chance to win the conference. If we don’t, we don’t.”
That's not quite true, but a loss on Sunday would mean the that Oklahoma would have to lose its final conference game against Oklahoma State while Missouri would have to sweep a two-game series from Nebraska to win a share of the title.
A win, though, would mean the Tigers remain in control of their chances for a championship, even after dropping two conference games in a row.
If this scenario has spooked or discouraged Missouri's stars, they didn't let it show after the loss. After their customary team meeting in shallow right field, the players returned to the dugout with stern faces but reemerged a short time later relaxed and proclaiming themselves ready for the challenge.
“We’ve got to win the rest of them to give ourselves a shot, so we put the pressure us," Lindsey Ubrun said with a smile, almost as if she was looking forward to it. "But I think most everyone is used to playing with the pressure, so hopefully we’ll come out and play better than we did today.”
Ubrun, a senior third baseman, provided Missouri's only offense on Saturday with a two-run home run in the bottom of the second inning that easily cleared the left field fence as well as the bleachers full of fans that were added in anticipation of big crowds for the weekend series.
Senior Stacy Delaney (13-2) pitched the game's first five innings, giving up only a solo home run to Oklahoma's national player of the year finalist Amber Flores before being replaced by Nottelman (11-2) because Earleywine thought the Sooners were beginning to hit the ball hard off her.
Delaney, who was in the circle when Missouri won its NCAA Regional a year ago, suggested that the most important games of the season are still ahead of the Tigers, at least until Sunday.
“This is just a pregame, little warm-up until what’s going to be towards the end of the season," Delaney said. "So we just have to pick up our intensity and focus on the little things that will win us games."