COLUMBIA – Physically, Missouri freshman pitcher Bailey Erwin is as gifted as any softball scout could want for a potential ace.
Her 6-foot-4 frame allows her to slowly uncoil her body as she strides way out toward the plate and then quickly strike at opposing hitters with what All-American teammate Chelsea Thomas calls a “sneaky- quick” fast ball that gets inside and jams opposing hitters.
Texas Tech (32-9, 5-4 Big 12)
at No. 9 Missouri (31-6, 9-3 Big 12)
WHEN: 6 p.m.
WHERE: University Field
Erwin’s biggest asset as a pitcher is her height and substantial reach toward opponents who have less time to react to the mid-60 mph bullets she shoots toward them.
Erwin's fastball from 43 feet away equates to about a 94 to 95 mph pitch thrown by a baseball player from 60 feet, 6 inches away. Batters in both sports have about .388 to .392 seconds to react to the pitch.
She is six inches taller than the highly-touted Thomas, whose fastball hits the low 70s, and four inches taller than softball pitching legend Jennie Finch, who is said to have had a near seven-foot stride.
Make no mistake; Erwin is an intimidating presence on the mound. But don't expect to see her pitching this weekend against Texas Tech.
Erwin is third on the the Tigers' depth chart, falling in line behind elder statesmen Thomas and Kristin Nottelmann. For someone with her unrefined physical tools, it is an excellent situation. It allows her some needed time to grow.
Rather than a trial by fire that many talented freshmen are forced to endure in their first season, Missouri’s coaches have prevented her from being burned by the power hitting of the Big 12 Conference — something that could destroy the confidence of any young pitcher.
Instead Erwin has settled in as Missouri’s Pac-Man, eating up innings against lesser opponents resting the arms of Nottelmann and Thomas, who face the Tigers' elite competition that she is not yet ready for.
But Missouri Head Coach Ehren Earleywine called her “invaluable” and would not undersell her roll with the team. He and Erwin both understand how important it is.
“Basically I come in and save Notty and Chelsea’s arms,” Erwin said laughingly. “Before the season, coach pretty much laid out my role, and I am completely fine with that.”
In 43.2 innings Erwin has a perfect 5-0 record with team-leading 0.96 ERA (.01 points ahead of Thomas) with 34 strikeouts. As an innings-eater, you can’t ask for much more.
Erwin’s position as pitching apprentice for Missouri enables her to learn from two pitchers who have tallied almost 900 innings in their collegiate careers. Quietly she tries to imitate the day-to-day actions of her mentors.
“She just observes everything,” Thomas said. “She doesn’t talk a lot or ask a lot of questions. She just watches and learns.”
Erwin, a Claremore, Okla., native who chose Missouri over successful softball programs like Tulsa and Arkansas, places she might have had an opportunity to pitch more often, said she chose the Tigers specifically so she could learn from Nottelman and Thomas.
Erwin said she tends to follow Thomas and Nottelmann around, trying to focus on their game-to-game routines. She said by watching them, she is beginning to understand what it takes to be a dominant pitcher in an elite conference.
“I am learning everything from probably two of the best pitchers in the country,” Erwin said. “Having Chelsea and Kristin every step of the way is huge.”
And next season, when Nottelmann graduates, Erwin will take the another step forward, sliding in behind Thomas as the team’s No. 2 pitcher. Here she will get her first real taste of what it is like to face top-notch competition when she and the Tigers move to the Southeastern Conference, a softball super-conference, while also not feeling the pressure of carrying the weight of the team on her right arm.
Before the season, Earleywine said multiple times that he was not expecting much from Erwin. He said that she would probably not be ready in time to face Missouri’s fierce competition and that she would most likely be used sparingly.
But as the season progressed, Earleywine has gained more and more confidence in his young pitcher. As recently as last week against No. 3-ranked Texas, Earleywine put her in the game to relieve Thomas. She responded well, pitching around three errors and surrendering only two runs with neither one of them earned.
“She’s been effective,” Earleywine said. “I have been pleasantly surprised from what we’ve gotten from Bailey.”
As for becoming the next leader of the pitching staff when Thomas leaves after the 2013 season, Earleywine said Erwin is still far from reaching that point.
“Right now, it would be hard for me to project her as an ace-caliber pitcher, but she could,” Earleywine said. “She has some of the intangibles. I know she can be a No. 2.”
To become the No. 1, Earleywine said she is going to have go beyond his expectations in terms of her work ethic. So far, he said, she has only been doing what coaches have told her to do, and in order for her to become the next Chelsea Thomas, she has to start working like Chelsea Thomas.
“As a kid that is 6-4 or 6-5, that’s why we recruited her, because of the immense potential that she has," Earleywine said. "Whether she fulfills it or not is completely up to her.”