COLUMBIA — The bench cleared and the entire Missouri team crowded together, smothering sophomore Rachel Hay as she jumped onto home plate.
It looked like the Tigers had just won a conference championship on a walk-off home run.
No. 13 Missouri vs. North Dakota State
WHEN: 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
No. 13 Missouri vs. Western Michigan
WHEN: 4 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
Not quite. Rather, Missouri had just taken a 10-0 lead in the fifth inning against Western Michigan. But that didn’t stop Hay’s teammates from celebrating her first hit of the year, a solo home run. Heading into Saturday, Hay had appeared in seven games so far this season, with no hits in five plate appearances.
“My teammates are great,” Hay said. “We’re like a big family, and when you have that great support system behind you, it’s really awesome. They’re like that with everybody, but they noticed I was struggling and they were there to support me. It was great.”
And though No. 13 Missouri (19-3) was already up 9-0 against Western Michigan (4-16), Hay's teammates recognized how special the occasion was for her.
“They know she grinds it out every day in practice, and she’s got nothing to show for it,” head coach Ehren Earleywine said. “They’re just compassionate.”
Earleywine said moments like those make him happiest as a coach.
“As soon as the ball came off Rachel’s bat I knew it was gone, so I looked up in the stands and her dad … he jumped that high off the ground,” Earleywine said, holding his hands about two feet from the ground. “He went, ‘Wahoo.’ He jumped about that high. He looked like Yosemite Sam up there. It was all I could do to keep my composure.”
The Tigers won 10-0 in five innings, picking up their 16th straight win and their 11th shutout this season. Junior Kristin Nottelmann recorded her ninth win and nearly no-hit the Broncos, giving up a single in the bottom of the fifth.
Missouri didn’t have much to cheer about in the first game of its Friday doubleheader against North Dakota State (10-18). The evident enthusiasm of the second game was absent in the first. The bench was quieter than usual, and the players seemed to move slower than usual.
“I think we were just a little too flat,” Nottelmann said of the Tigers’ performance in the first game. “We weren’t really too enthused, and I feel like the bench was just a little too mellow.”
Missouri put up four runs in the first inning on back-to-back home runs, a three-run blast from senior first baseman Catherine Lee and a solo shot from sophomore outfielder Nicole Hudson.
After that, the Tigers were shut out.
“I think they’re on cruise control,” Earleywine said of his players’ offensive performances. “It’s unacceptable. We jumped out with four runs in the first inning and then six innings of shutout ball against those pitchers. There’s just no way. It’s unacceptable, and they know it, I know it — we’ve talked about it. We’ve just got to do better or somebody’s going to slip up and knock our teeth out.”
Earleywine wanted to rest redshirt sophomore pitcher Chelsea Thomas and save her for Missouri’s weekend games, starting Hudson in her place. Hudson threw three innings, giving up three runs in the second. Senior Lisa Simmons relieved Hudson to throw two innings and pick up the win. Senior Ashley Fleming also threw an inning.
But with one on and no outs in the top of the seventh inning, Earleywine decided to bring Thomas in with the winning run at the plate. Thomas retired the next three batters, striking out two.
“It was so unfortunate, it was total worst case scenario having to bring Chelsea in,” Earleywine said. “I didn’t want her throwing three days in a row … I just wanted her to throw two days. It stunk, but we got lucky.”
Thomas said she wasn’t expecting to pitch Friday. But she started getting ready to come in before Earleywine even said anything.
“I got my cleats on before he (Earleywine) told me,” she said. “Then he was like, ‘You might want to go start warming up,’ so I headed to the bullpen. I was ready.”
Missouri won 4-3, and Thomas picked up her second save of the season. Earleywine said he hopes she’s not getting used to playing the closer role, though; he wants her starting and pitching shutouts. Thomas said closing games now might help her later in the season.
“I really like the pressure situations, and that’s what we work for our entire lives, to be put into those situations,” Thomas said. “That type of stuff is going to help me down the line when we’re playing Alabama or a No. 1 team and it’s a close game like that.”
The pitching rotation returns to normal Saturday for Missouri, as Earleywine said Nottelmann and Thomas will each start a game for the Tigers, who play another doubleheader in the Wilson Classic. Missouri faces North Dakota State at 1:30 p.m. followed by another game against Western Michigan at 4 p.m.