COLUMBIA — Former Missouri football and baseball great Phil Bradley, who these days is helping out as an assistant coach for the Missouri softball team, was asked a simple question Thursday, one day before the Tigers' begin their bid for a fourth straight appearance at the Women's College World Series with a NCAA regional opener against Illinois State.
Bradley paused when asked how far Missouri can go. He took his time, collected his thoughts and gave an uncomplicated and familiar answer.
Missouri's opening game of the Columbia regional will be against Illinois State and is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday at University Field.
The Tigers own a 18-7 record all-time against the Redbirds. The teams played five games last season, and Missouri won all five. The Tigers have won their past nine games against the Redbirds.
ISU comes to Columbia batting .262 as a team. They are led by senior Liz Andrews who has a .340 average this season with 11 doubles, two triples and six home runs.
Senior Jordan Birch is the team’s top pitcher. She enters the tournament with a 23-12 record and a 1.55 ERA. She has 221 strikeouts in 212.0 innings compared to just 40 walks. Opponents are hitting .214 against her. As a staff, Illinois State has a 2.66 ERA.
He said something that players and coaches on this team have been saying for the entire season. He said something every softball analyst has been saying since the preseason. He said something that each team in this tournament already knows about Missouri.
He said what every Missouri fan is thinking.
“When you have Chelsea Thomas, this team has the ability to go all the way. But we’ve had Chelsea Thomas for the last three years, so ... I don’t know," Bradley said.
What Bradley was saying was that, despite Thomas' dominance in the past, the Tigers have been unable to win any more than one game once they reach Oklahoma City. It was a little more than a year ago that Missouri lost a 13-inning marathon game 1-0 to end its season.
Thomas isn't the concern. The offense is.
Corrin Genovese, the Tigers' freshman infielder who was recently named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, said Missouri's formula for winning is simple — score three or four runs for Thomas and the Tigers are nearly unbeatable.
She's pretty much spot on. In games that Thomas, the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, starts and the Tigers score three or more runs, Missouri is 20-1.
However, in games she starts, and the offense scores less than three runs, Missouri is just 3-5.
So for a team that has been predominantly known for its pitching and its young but stellar defense, the offense is going to have to produce better than the .241 team batting average it sported during conference play.
And Missouri head coach Ehren Earleywine doesn't want to take the easy way out either.
"I don't want to be the team that has to win on a squeeze or a passed ball or a hit by pitch or a sac(rifice) fly," Earleywine said. "You know, usually that's code for we're not really good. I don't want to be that team. I don't think we can win a national championship if we're that type of team."
Despite his offense's lack of success this season, he still thinks his offense is capable of providing the runs necessary to back Thomas in the tournament.
"I just haven't given up on them," Earleywine said. "There are too many talented kids. (Nicole) Hudson, (Jenna) Marston, neither one of them have had the types of year they're capable of having, and you're hoping, man, this is the game they're going to break out.
"And there's (Kelsea) Roth and Genovese and those freshman that were so highly touted, are they going to, finally going to get comfortable? So I haven't given up on them yet."
Earleywine has reason to think his offense has found another gear. The Tigers have been better of late, scoring 25 runs in the past six games. They are averaging more than Genovese's prescribed three runs per game.
Unsurprisingly, the Tigers are 5-1 in those games.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder