COLUMBIA — When Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine saw Tigers sophomore pitcher Kristin Nottelmann throw Saturday, he said it looked like nerves began to set in for her.
"There were several times I saw her take a deep breath and let it out, and usually that's a sign of nerves, a kid trying to settle themselves down," Earleywine said.
Nottelmann was pitching in one of the most important games of her career in the second round of the NCAA regionals against Illinois. Nottelmann only had six innings of postseason experience before the game.
Earleywine, the Tigers' fourth-year head coach, had said he was concerned about Nottelmann going into the postseason.
"I know Kristin, especially when she's nervous. I think she lacks courage, and when she lacks courage she doesn't make quality pitches," Earleywine said after practice Thursday. "She nibbles and gets behind too much and walks too many batters because of that fear factor."
But Nottelmann might have put those concerns to rest. In the seventh inning Nottelmann was faced with one of the most unsettling situations in softball. Missouri was ahead 3-1, but Illinois (45-7) had runners on first and second with two out and cleanup hitter Hollie Pinchback at the plate. In the past, Nottelmann might have folded, but not on Saturday.
She struck out Pinchback on three straight pitches, sending the Tigers (48-11) to a 3-1 victory in front of a sun-soaked crowd at University Field. Missouri advances to a 1 p.m. Sunday game against Illinois, which beat DePaul 9-1 in Saturday's late game. A victory gives the Tigers the regional championship. A loss creates a winner-take-all second game.
Nottelmann (21-7) threw 120 pitches in seven innings, giving up seven hits, striking out eight and walking two. She said she wasn't about to let the nerves prevent her from pitching out of many jams. Illinois had runners in scoring position in five innings, but Nottelmann induced inning-ending strikeouts in three of them.
"Right now I'm feeling pretty good," Nottelmann said. "I think everything is starting to click at the right time."
Nottelmann struggled at the beginning of Big 12 Conference play, starting with a record of 3-4 and an ERA above 4.0. But Missouri's final regular season game against Nebraska marked the turning point for the sophomore. She threw a complete-game 5-0 victory. It was the only shutout victory for the Tigers against a conference opponent this season.
Earleywine said Nottelmann looks like a completely different pitcher than she did earlier in the season.
"She (Nottelmann) has come on strong the last four or five games," Earleywine said. "It has surprised me because she was on cruise control for the first 15 or 20 (games) and we weren't happy with that. She's peaking at the right time. Perhaps it's part of having a year under your belt and understanding when the right time to peak is. But for the sake of my heart and the (grey) hair we talked about last night, I wish she pitched that way the entire season."
Pitching against a prolific Illinois offense is not an easy task. Coming into the tournament, Illinois was ranked fifth in the NCAA with a .329 team batting average and had outscored opponents 334-113. But Nottelmann kept the Illini lineup off balance, often overpowering hitters with her rise ball.
"I think she's strong, and she hit her spots well, and they called a good game," Illinois coach Terri Sullivan said. "I give credit to her, when we got a little bit of momentum she shut us down."
The Missouri offense only got four hits but managed to push across enough runs to win. Tigers sophomore Ashley Fleming had a solid day, going 2-for-3 and driving in two RBIs.
But one swing from the bat of the freshman Nicole Hudson was the biggest hit of the game for the Tigers and the most awkward-looking. Hudson, a left-handed power hitter, swung and ran towards first base like a slap hitter might. Still, the ball sailed over the bleachers behind the right field fence for her ninth home run. The fourth-inning shot put the Tigers ahead 2-1.
Earleywine said her swing reminded him of an All-Star outfielder for the Seattle Mariners.
"How funny was that home run she hit? It looked like Ichiro," Earleywine said.
"It wasn't exactly the prettiest swing, but it got the job done," Hudson said.
In Saturday's late game, Hope Howell's three-run home run highlighted the Illini's six-run fourth inning. Illinois pitcher Monica Perry gave up one run on three hits and stuck out one in four innings. DePaul eliminated Creighton in Game 4 on Saturday winning 3-2 in nine innings.
"Obviously our backs were against the wall, and it gave us a sense of urgency. It didn't matter who they (DePaul) put out there," Howell said of Illinois offensive performance.