COLUMBIA – Chelsea Thomas added one more feat to her expanding pitching resume. The sophomore picked up her first career save.
She earned the honor against Illinois in the second of the Missouri softball team’s two games in the DeMarini Invitational on Saturday afternoon at University Field.
No. 14 Missouri vs. Illinois State
WHERE: University Field
No. 14 Missouri vs. Illinois
WHEN: 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
With the No. 14 Tigers leading 4-3 heading into the bottom of the seventh, Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine pulled junior Kristin Nottelmann (7-0) and had Thomas (5-2) play the unfamiliar role of closer.
“I love going into high pressure situations like that,” Thomas said. “It’s a lot of fun for me.”
Thomas got all three batters out, recording one strikeout, to end the game and give Missouri (14-3) the win over Illinois (9-8).
After Thomas was injured in March last year, Earleywine said he planned on keeping her pitch count as low as possible for as long as possible. But Earleywine decided to bring Thomas in for Nottelmann after Thomas had thrown a complete five-inning game earlier in the afternoon against Illinois State (13-9).
“It was a really tough decision for me because I was worried about her getting hurt,” Earleywine said. “But they (Illinois) had three riseball hitters in a row coming up, and she’s got a great dropball. I just thought the matchup was irresistible.”
Earleywine’s strategy worked. Thomas was still able to keep a low pitch count on the day. Thomas needed just 12 pitches to get the final three Illini batters out, and she threw only 58 pitches in Mizzou’s 9-0 win over Illinois State.
“My pitch count was low, so I was under that limit for relief, just in case,” Thomas said.
With Thomas striking out eight batters and the Missouri offense looking dominant, the Tigers beat Illinois State in a run-rule shortened five-inning game that lasted just more than an hour.
Senior first baseman Catherine Lee and freshman third baseman Maddison Ruggeberg each had a home run in the bottom of the fifth inning to help score six runs that inning and end the game early.
Lee, who has struggled at the plate this season, hit her first home run of the year to drive in sophomore shortstop Jenna Marston and junior outfielder Ashley Fleming, giving Mizzou a 7-0 lead. Two batters later, Ruggeberg did her best to top Lee, launching a two-run home run to left field that appeared to travel close to 300 feet.
“I didn’t look at it; I just ran,” Ruggeberg said. “It felt pretty good, so I knew it was gone.”
Missouri struggled in its second game, though. Nottelmann didn’t have her best outing, giving up five hits and three runs in six innings. Missouri’s offense didn’t provide much help. The Tigers finished with only five hits.
“Any coach will tell you, that’s coached for any amount of time at all, it’s very hard to get your team motivated after an enormous woodshop beating like we gave them (Illinois State) in the first game,” Earleywine said. “It’s tough because they feel so good about themselves, and sometimes they forget to re-engage.”
Against Illinois, Missouri didn’t get on the scoreboard until the fourth inning. Trailing 2-0, Lee hit her second home run of the day, which also drove in Fleming.
In the next inning, Marston’s double to right center field drove in senior outfielder Rhea Taylor and freshman designated player Taylor Duplechain, giving Mizzou two more runs, which would eventually prove to be enough.
Missouri plays the same schedule Sunday afternoon, taking on Illinois State at noon and Illinois at 2:30 p.m. And though they got the win, the Tigers want to show their true potential when they take on Illinois again.
“It is a little bit disappointing that we had to scrap around for four runs against Illinois,” Lee said. “So tomorrow we’re definitely going to be coming and looking to show that power all through the lineup.”