COLUMBIA — Earlier in the season, Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine did not hesitate to call junior Rhea Taylor the most feared leadoff hitter in college softball.
In Saturday's game against Texas Tech, Taylor backed up Earleywine's claim. She hit a bouncing ground ball towards first base which normally would have been an easy out. But the speedy left-handed slap hitter darted down the first-base line pressuring the first baseman to rush her throw, which slipped past the player covering the bag allowing Taylor to go to second.
"No chance," Earleywine said of Texas Tech getting her out on the play. "If it bounces twice you better put it in your pocket. In a game, her time from home to first in a game is about 2.4 or 2.5 (seconds)."
Taylor was aggressive on the bases the entire game, helping set up all of Missouri's runs. She went 3-for-3 with a triple, stolen base and three runs scored, guiding the Tigers to a 3-1 victory against Texas Tech at University Field.
Taylor has a reputation for being the Tiger's fastest player. Her speed has allowed her to steal 22 bases (first in the Big 12) and to stretch singles into extra-base hits. She takes advantage of any hesitation or bobble by a fielder and never thinks twice about taking an extra base.
"Once I know it's a hard hit ball in the outfield, I'm automatically going two," Taylor said. "I just put my head down and sprint to first."
"Rhea makes it look so easy," Earleywine said.
One of Taylor's goals after she graduates is to make the U.S. Olympic softball team, which might not be to far-fetched for the two-time All American. Earlier in the season, she was named one of 25 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year and broke Missouri's career stolen base record. She consistently posts .400-plus batting averages every year.
"I still have some things I need to work on but I feel I'm getting there," Taylor said. "As long as work hard and put in the extra hours I have to, to be successful then it's all good."
But Earleywine said there are many things Taylor needs to improve in order to play in the Olympics. She said she needs to work on her throwing mechanics, reducing her strikeouts (23 this season) and her evening her mindset, noting that she gets upset after having bad games.
"When you play on a team with the best 15 people in the country, your game needs to be pretty tight," Earleywine said. "The mental part of her game is going to be important if she is going to reach international play. She also needs to learn how to deal with failure better."
While Taylor ignited the offense, Missouri senior Jana Hainey helped the Tigers' three runs hold up. She picked up the win, allowing one run on six hits and striking out five batters in 5 1/3 innings.
"I felt great today, and my arm is feeling great," Hainey said.
This has been rare for Hainey, who has been plagued with shoulder injuries throughout her time with the Tigers. Hainey usually exits a game after two to three innings because of soreness or fatigue, but she has had to pitch more innings since Missouri ace Chelsea Thomas developed a stress fracture in her throwing wrist.
Earleywine said he is still doubtful that Thomas will return this season, but still hopes to bring her back in the postseason.
"I talked to our trainer this morning about her," Earleywine said. "She (the trainer) anticipates the pain being gone within two weeks. At that point once the pain is gone, we'll do an MRI and a bone scan to see if the fracture is gone. If it is, at that point well let her throw some in the bullpen. Two weeks from now, we will be able to make a lot better decision. We are just hoping the doctor will surprise us."
If Thomas does return, Earleywine said he thinks it will be after the Big 12 regular season around May 9.
Saturday, Hainey surprised Earleywine, pitching more innings than normal and keeping the speed of her pitches in the low to mid-60's throughout the entire game.
"I was proud of Jana, that was probably one of her better outings in a long time," Earleywine said."It will be interesting to see how many innings she can go tomorrow."
The win improves the Tigers' to 31-10 and 4-6 in the Big 12 Conference. The Tigers wind up their series with Texas Tech (31-11, 3-7) at noon Sunday at University Field.