COLUMBIA — It has come later in the season than he had hoped, but Missouri softball head coach Ehren Earleywine isn't about to complain.
The offense's ability to hit for power and score runs have all come together the past few games, and it didn't change Sunday.
The Tigers struggled pitching and fielding Sunday, but they had 10 hits, including two home runs in a 11-6 victory against Baylor at University Field. The Tigers have won 14 of their past 15 games and 6-of-7 against Big 12 Conference teams.
"It makes up for a lot of errors and makes it feel a lot better at the end of the day when you win," Earleywine said. "When you make those kind of errors and you pitch poorly and lose it makes for a tough night. Our offense has really stepped up."
Missouri (41-9, 10-6) has made hitting against Big 12 teams look easy lately. The offense has scored five or more runs the past 11 games and has averaged 11 runs per game in its past six conference games. Earleywine described Sunday's game as "co-ed softball" since his team struggled from the mound but scored easily. He said there is still room for improvement.
"I think right now, let's hypothetically say, we'll call our nine players nine cylinders. I think we are hitting on about five right now," he said. "Earlier in the season it was just two or three. Shoot if we ever got seven, eight or nine going now your talking about a legitimate team going to the World Series even without pitching."
"It's just coming together," sophomore Ashley Fleming said. "At the beginning of the year, one person would have a good game, but it was never all of us. Now everybody is hitting good."
Fleming has been a major contributor to the offensive surge. Sunday she went 1-for-2 with a three run home run, a drop ball she blasted over the left-center field fence in the fourth inning. She has been a consistent hitter in the lineup hitting a .353 batting average and is tied for the team lead with eight home runs, doubling her total from last season.
"I had a lot of opportunities last year, I think it's that I'm so relaxed," Fleming said. "I've got a year under my belt, and I know what it's like facing Division I pitching."
Fleming has been the clean-up hitter the majority of the season. Her ability to hit for power and make good contact has kept her there, but Earleywine had one other reason.
"The thing I'm learning about Ashley is the more I leave her in the four hole, and more she plays every single game, the more she thinks I believe in her," he said. "I think everything with her is predicated on confidence."
The team has been ranked as low as seventh in the conference in team batting average. The Tigers are now second in the Big 12 with a .302 team batting average and first in runs scored (315).
Earleywine said the team is not where it needs to be right now. He said the pitching and defense needs improvement. In Sunday's game, Missouri pitchers Jana Hainey and Kristin Nottelmann combined to give up 10 hits, walking two and striking out four. The team is sixth in the Big 12 with a 3.78 team ERA against conference opponents.
"It's not a good place to be because when you get into the postseason, most of the time it's pitching and defense that's going to win those games," Earleywine said. "It's nice to win but it's not where we want to be."
Especially against conference teams like Oklahoma and Texas, who the Tigers may face in the Big 12 tournament. Both the Sooners and the Longhorns have ace pitchers that have dominated opposing offenses. Texas' Blaire Luna is 26-6 with a 0.91 ERA and 335 strikeouts. She was the last pitcher to hold the Tiger offense below three runs. Oklahoma pitcher Keilani Ricketts is no slouch either. She is 24-8 with a 1.40 ERA and 251 strikeouts.
"When you get those tough pitchers, I don't care how good you're hitting, they're going to get you more times than you get them," Earleywine said. "So I don't think you go in there thinking you're going to score 11. I think you go in there saying hey let's get three or four here an hope your pitching does a better job than it's been doing."
But Earleywine admitted it's possible to ride a hot offense in the postseason.
"You can, you can sneak them out," Earleywine said. "You just get hot and everyone starts smashing and run somebody's ace off the field. It happens, I've seen it happen. I've coached it."
Can the Tigers do that?
"Yeah, I think we are capable now," Earleywine said.
Missouri will play a doubleheader against Western Illinois at 3 p.m. Wednesday in Macomb, Ill.