COLUMBIA – That elusive final out reminded the Missouri softball team that no regional championship is routine.
The Tigers won the championship game of the Columbia regional 2-1 against Illinois State at 3:33 Sunday afternoon. They thought they had won it four minutes earlier.
Missouri's 2-1 victory against Illinois State on Sunday afternoon was its second against the Redbirds in three days. On Friday, Missouri defeated Illinois State 6-0 to advance to the winner's bracket of the Columbia regional tournament. Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, Chelsea Thomas dominated the women from Normal, Ill., throwing 13 innings against them allowing one run.
Junior designated player, Lindsey Muller, highlighted the offense at University Field on Sunday hitting a sixth inning home run over the left field fence. The blast ended up being the the decisive run in the game when Missouri conceded its first run of the tournament in the bottom of the sixth.
Junior Jenna Marston and freshman Kayla Kingsley each caught fire during the tournament this weekend. Marston went 5-for-11 with a walk and Kingsley went 6-for-9 with a double.
At 3:29 p.m., star pitcher Chelsea Thomas induced a two-out ground ball to the shortstop that led to a clean force out at second base. The Tigers and their fans counted three outs and a fifth consecutive regional championship. The crowd erupted in cheers, the outfielders came running in, the infielders converged on Thomas, and the dugout started to clear.
One player stayed out of the celebration, junior catcher Jenna Marston.
"I just tried to go too far out there and get the pitch, and she (the batter) definitely got some of my glove (with her bat)," Marston said after the game. "I knew it right away. And so did the umpires."
The umpires correctly identified Marston's infraction as catcher's interference and Stephanie Gallant was awarded first base, putting runners on first and second, extending the game another couple of minutes.
The next Illinois State batter took Thomas to a full count before she hit a sharp ground ball to the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, freshman shortstop Corinn Genovese. Genovese has committed seven errors in 56 games this season. She leads the Tigers in assists.
But on this play, in the 57th game of the season, the ball skipped up on her and bounced off the heel of her glove into the outfield.
The Illinois State runners advanced, and just three minutes after the Tigers believed they were champions, the bases were loaded with the winning run 120 feet from home.
Thomas had had enough.
"Corrin rarely makes an error," Thomas said. "So I wasn't going to let her get punished for one error after 75 million good plays. I just wanted to just be there and pick them up."
And she did. She struck out Lauren Kellar, getting her to chase a high riseball, and with that pitch, at 3:33 p.m., the Tigers were regional champions and officially celebrated.
The celebration, though, had barely begun before No. 9 seed Missouri and its fans received even more good news. The No. 8 seed Texas A&M lost earlier Sunday afternoon, and Missouri will host the super regional tournament next weekend, playing future Southeastern Conference opponent LSU.
"I never take these things for granted," Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said of winning another regional championship. "You look around the country and see the things that happened this weekend, and that will remind you in a hurry to be thankful."
Having survived the eventful seventh inning, Thomas reflected on the opportunity to host the super regional.
"I'm really excited," she said. "We have so many great fans here. To be in this atmosphere, there's nothing like it. I'm really excited to just have LSU come here."
She should be. In her last three games in Columbia, Thomas has thrown 22 innings of one-run softball and has stuck out 27 batters leading the Tigers to a 3-0 record to begin the postseason.
Earleywine summarized the weekend after the game when some of the first words out his mouth were, "Thank God for Chelsea Thomas."
Supervising editor is Brandon Hoops.