COLUMBIA — It as if time slowed down for the Saint Louis hitters. Missouri junior Lisa Simmons floated the ball toward home plate, sneaking it past Saint Louis second baseman Laura Bohning for Simmons' first strikeout of the season. The Tigers stood up and cheered as Simmons walked to the dugout and greeted her with high fives and pats on the back.
"I was kind of excited. I haven't pitched in a long time," Simmons said. "I wasn't trying to strike anybody out for sure. It's always nice to have your team right there to support you."
Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine said Wednesday he is not as optimistic as he once was about the return of Tigers ace Chelsea Thomas, who was diagnosed by doctors with a mid-level stress fracture in her right (throwing) wrist last Thursday. Earleywine said her chances of returning are 50-50, but he is leaning more towards her not returning.
"We wouldn't bring her back unless the doctor said that she was 100 percent," Earleywine said. "If she's 98 percent or 92 percent, we won't do it. The risk is too great because you could risk two years (of injury)."
According to Earleywine, Thomas will be re-evaluated every week. He said the team will decide in the next three to six weeks whether to issue Thomas a medical redshirt, giving the sophomore three more years of eligibility.
"For Chelsea's mental being, I can't shut her down yet," Earleywine said. "If she does come back, I don't want to have her have to flip the switch back on. She needs to keep the switch on til we shut her down."
Earlier in the season, Earleywine said he was going to depend on Thomas to pitch the majority of the conference and postseason games. Thomas has pitched 77 1/2 innings this season. She has a 1.72 ERA with 123 strikeouts, which almost more than doubles the second highest amount on team (Kristin Nottelmann, 51).
When asked about his team's chances of winning the Big 12 Conference without Thomas, Earleywine seemed glum and admitted it was tough not having her on the team.
"It's going to be very tough," Earleywine said. "Can we win without her? Yes, but it's going to be tough."
Thomas has been unavailable for comment since the injury was diagnosed.
Simmons, who typically plays in the outfield, pitched in her first game at the collegiate level in the second game of the Missouri softball team's doubleheader Wednesday against visiting Saint Louis. Simmons and freshman Lindsey Muller, combined to pitch a five-inning shutout, only allowing two hits and striking out three batters in the Tigers' 9-0 victory. Missouri won 8-0 in another five-inning affair in the first game.
The Tigers have made many changes to their pitching rotation because of the loss of ace Chelsea Thomas, who is out with a mid-level stress fracture in her right (throwing) wrist. Simmons, Muller, Kristin Nottelmann and Jana Hainey have had to fill the void since the injury.
For Simmons, it started with a text message that Earleywine sent Tuesday asking her if she could pitch. Simmons was a starting pitcher for Booneville High School, but she had not thrown a pitch since an intrasquad game in her freshman year at MU.
"I told her 'Hey, I forgot to tell you in practice. I want you to throw some,'" Earleywine said. "She threw to one of our managers, and she said she felt great. I just told her the slower you throw the better."
The text message caught her by surprise, but after she warmed up Tuesday, she decided she was ready. Simmons' pitches reach anywhere from 40 to 55 mph, significantly slower than the average softball pitcher. Earleywine compared Simmons to the Majpr League's Jamie Moyer, who is known for his slow speeds.
"She was effective today," Earleywine said. "The slower she throws, the more difficult she will be to hit. We are all over there hee-hawing and laughing and stuff, but the fact of the matter is, pitchers like that can really stymie good hitting teams. We pitched her in some intersquads, and we can't hit her."
Earlweywine said he won't hesitate to use Simmons later in the season. It was not just a one time thing.
"No, no. When we are up five (runs) or down five, I'm going to run her out there to save our pitchers' arms," Earleywine said.
Muller was recruited primarily as a hitter and was not expected to pitch much this season. Muller only had two starts before Wednesday's game and has a 3-0 record with a 1.83 ERA and six strikeouts.
Muller has thrived in games where she hits and pitches in the same game and did it for the second time Wednesday. She went 1-for-1 with a walk and a grand-slam home run in addition to throwing a shutout. The home run was her second on the year, the first coming when she pitched against Southeast Missouri State.
"Maybe I'm learning something ... seriously," Earleywine said. "She seems more comfortable hitting when she's pitching."
Muller's primary pitch is the rise ball, but she is working on developing a drop ball. Her pitching time has increased in practice, and she might start some Big 12 games.
"I was a little nervous at first because I was totally unprepared for it," Muller said. "I feel like I've done decent. I got more pitching time in and I feel more comfortable. Coming in as a freshman, I didn't know what to expect."
Nottleman, a sophomore, pitched all five innings in the first game, allowing no runs on two hits and striking out six batters. Her role has increased as well in Thomas' absence. Nottelmann was the Tigers' No. 2 starter, and Earleywine said Nottelmann will be their Day 1 starter if Thomas does not return.
"She showed us she can go back-to-back days in tournaments earlier in the season," Earleywine said. "If she can show me that she can do that I'll give her the ball both days. If I see her out there puttering our running out of gas, I'll run Jana, Lindsey or somebody out there."
"You always have to be ready to step-up at any time," Nottellmann said.
When Nottelmann is on the mound her face is expressionless and she looks relaxed before she delivers the ball to the plate.
"Honestly that's how I've always been," Nottelmann said. "I don't like to show a lot of emotion. I don't like to show them what I'm feeling."
The victories improve the Tigers' record to 25-4. The team will play a pair of home games this weekend against Oklahoma State. The first game is Friday at 5:30 p.m. at University Field.