COLUMBIA – The Wednesday before Missouri's final regular season series, coach Ehren Earleywine planned to tell senior pitcher Kristin Nottelmann her role on the team heading into the postseason.
"I'm going to tell her that she's not up to pitch in big games, and that if she does pitch, it will only be for a couple of innings," Earleywine said. "She's our No. 3 pitcher right now. Going down the stretch, we're going to have a lot shorter leash on her just because she hasn't proven she can pitch like the days of old."
For the second day in a row, Missouri defeated conference opponent Oklahoma State. Only this time, it was a little closer.
In the 5-3 victory, the Tigers were forced to use ace Chelsea Thomas (22-7, 1.13 ERA), a day after she threw a no-hitter, to preserve the win with 2.1 innings of relief work.
Freshman starter Bailey Erwin (8-0, 1.21 ERA) sailed through the first four innings allowing no runs, but in the fifth, she ran into some trouble. After letting the first batter of the inning reach, she gave up a home run that cut Missouri's 4-0 lead it half.
She would get two outs but also allow two more runners to reach base. As soon as Earleywine learned Thomas was ready in the bullpen, he made the change.
Thomas would allow one more run to cross the plate in the fifth, but that would be all she surrendered as the Tigers clawed one game closer to clinching second place in the conference.
Offensively, the Tigers were backed by a couple of long balls from Lindsey Muller (6) and Ashley Fleming (15).
Missouri will try to sweep Oklahoma State out of Columbia at noon Sunday. The game will serve as the Tigers' senior night where they will honor their two seniors (Fleming and Kristin Nottelmann) and mothers as the University Field will host a Mother's Day Extravaganza where all mothers will get in for free.
Missouri's home game Sunday against Oklahoma State is the final game of the regular season and Senior Day, when the team's seniors traditionally start.
But that won't be the case for Nottelmann. She will watch from the bench as the first pitch is thrown in the last Big 12 conference game of her career.
Times have changed for Nottelmann, who finds herself the odd pitcher out after leading Missouri to the College World Series two years ago.
On a Friday in March, the 2010 Tigers received the devastating news that Chelsea Thomas, the sophomore phenom who the year before had taken Missouri softball to its first College World Series since 1993, would miss the remainder of the season.
Thomas had been diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right (throwing) wrist and would have to be redshirted. Conference play hadn't begun, and the Tigers were without their No. 1 pitcher as they set out to defend their 2009 Big 12 championship and make a return trip to the World Series.
That same Friday was the day Earleywine realized his team only had one choice if it was going to have any chance to salvage its ace-less season.
"Of course Notty got the ball," Earleywine said. "She was really our only option left."
"She started off poor. For about two weeks, they did to her then what they've been doing to her this year ... But about that third week, she picks up a win. Then she picks up another win. Pretty soon, Notty's got the hot hand. She was in a groove. She was rolling."
"I specifically remember Nebraska was the turning point for me," said Nottelmann, who threw 9.1 inning of scoreless softball in two games against the Cornhuskers in the final series of the regular season.
"That's when everything clicked," she said. "That was the first time in a long time I had gone out on the mound with a lot of confidence. It was something in the air. It felt right. It was perfect."
Behind Nottelmann, the Tigers cruised, finishing with a then-team record 51 wins and reaching their second consecutive College World Series.
There, Missouri lost two consecutive games in Oklahoma City to Hawaii and then Florida. The loss to Hawaii was Nottelmann's first in three weeks. In NCAA Tournament play, Nottelmann went 5-2 with a 1.47 ERA, 30 strikeouts and just seven walks.
"It was a dream come true," Nottelmann said. "I've always, since I was a little girl, wanted to pitch in the World Series ... and actually getting to do that was just ... It was probably the best time I've ever had here."
But that was two years ago.
Now, the All-American Thomas is back and has resumed her role as one of the most dominant pitchers in the country. And freshman, Bailey Erwin, has surprised everyone by emerging as the team's stalwart No. 2.
Name the statistic, and it's probably been Nottelmann's worst since her freshman season. Her strikeout to walk ratio is down (2.13). Her ERA (2.40) is the highest of her career. Her win total of 12 is half of what she achieved in 2010.
"It's been horrible," Earleywine said. "I know she's disappointed. I wish we would have gotten better innings out of her."
But it doesn't go without explanation. The difference between the sophomore that lead Missouri to the World Series two years ago and the senior who surrendered eight runs in her last outing is the the lack of continuous opportunities, Earleywine said.
He has said countless times that Nottelmann is at her best when she is throwing all the time. In 2010, Nottelmann threw 194 innings. This season, her 105 innings are her lowest since her freshman year.
"But we haven't thrown her like that this year, and that's the key for Notty," Earleywine said. "She's got to throw a lot, so we'll take a lot of the blame for not making sure that she hasn't been doing what she's supposed to be doing."
Earleywine said her lack of use has come out of a lack of necessity. Thomas and Erwin have simply pitched better. But doesn't make it any easier of a pill to swallow for Nottelmann.
"You want to play," Nottelmann said. "That's why you come here. That's why you come play college ball. But sometimes, it's just not meant to be. It's not your time."
Nottelmann said she realizes time is something she doesn't have much more of.
"It's definitely a lot (tougher), my senior year, knowing I don't have next year to try and work on it," Nottelmann said. "But you know, I'm not really trying to focus on that. I'm really just trying to enjoy the little time that I have left."
That's exactly what she's been doing, Earleywine has said. He said his respect for her grown a lot recently because of the way she has handled her demotion. He knows many players in her position could have quit on the team, but she hasn't done that.
"I'm a Notty fan," Earleywine said. "After what she did for us a couple years ago and the way she's acted, having to pitch behind Chelsea is admirable, and so, I'm a fan."
Teammates say she has remained as positive and helpful as she ever was. The young Bailey Erwin continues to mention how much she has learned from both Thomas and Nottelmann.
Some of her closest friends on the team, catcher Jenna Marston and third baseman Nicole Hudson, say she has remained one of the best teammates in the Tigers' dugout.
When asked if she still would have chosen Missouri, knowing everything she now knows about her career at Missouri, Nottelman said: "I think so."
She would have asked a few more questions before joining the Tigers, she said.
"I was young, and my parents didn't really know much about pitching time and the other recruits, and just how the game works, and how the season works and how things in general will go," she said. "We didn't really ask about the major things we should have asked about."
When she graduates, leaves Missouri and looks back on this year, Nottelmann said she will probably do so fondly.
"I don’t think I’m going to be happy that I didn't pitch, but I don't think I'm going to resent him," Nottelmann said of Earleywine. "That's how the game is played. That's how he decided to go with things ... I don't think I'll be happy about it. I might be a little disappointed, but I don't think there will be any resentment toward him at all."