COLUMBIA — The Missouri softball team's 2012 season ended abruptly.
The team had won seven straight games before hosting LSU in the NCAA Super Regionals. Then-No. 10 ranked Missouri was to play an unranked team at home with the recently-named Big 12 Pitcher of the Year in the circle. It seemed like they had it in the bag.
Missouri (24-6, 9-5 SEC)
at LSU (35-9, 11-4 SEC)
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Tiger Park in Baton Rouge, La.
RANKINGS: Missouri is ranked No. 11 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll and No. 12 in the USA Today/NFCA poll, while LSU is ranked No. 12 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll and No. 11 in the USA Today/NFCA poll.
But winning on paper doesn't count.
In what she said was one of the worst games of her career, Missouri ace Chelsea Thomas gave up five runs in 4 1/3 innings, and Missouri lost the first game of the series 6-1. In Game 2, Missouri pulled off a 5-1 extra-inning victory to force a Game 3 later that evening. Thomas started the third game, but after pitching 18 1/3 innings over two days, Thomas was fatigued and didn't last past the third inning in a 3-1 loss.
Being the main starter eventually took its toll on Thomas, and the Tigers missed the Women's College World Series for the first time in four years.
Eight months later, as the team prepared for the 2013 season, the game still haunted Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine.
"It’s amazing some of the demons that flash through my head about past losses," Earleywine said. "I think God gave me an extra dose of competitiveness, and it has allowed me to be successful at some things, but it’s also my Achilles' heel."
But now that it is time for redemption, for Missouri and LSU to play again, Earleywine admits he hasn't had time to think about one of the other Southeastern Conference Tigers.
“If I didn’t have so many circumstances in front of me right now, I’d probably think about it more, but I just can’t," Earleywine said. "I’m just overwhelmed with trying to figure out how to continue and keep this team at the top."
Missouri's plan for winning this year has been to score enough runs that Thomas, the team's only starting pitcher, could be taken out early and rest to prepare for the remainder of the series. It worked for the first 24 games of the season, but then the tougher competition of Alabama and Arkansas revealed the flaws.
“We have an ace pitcher who has limited pitch counts and a fatigue factor at a certain point and a two and three that are ill-equipped for this moment because nobody knew that it was going to happen," Earleywine said after losing the series to Arkansas on Sunday.
After the transfer of sophomore pitcher Bailey Erwin in early March, seniors Nicole Hudson and Lindsey Muller had to step up as relief pitchers — something neither had done since 2011. If Earleywine starts Hudson or Muller instead of Thomas, he has accepted that it would more than likely result in a loss.
"It's just one of those things that is unfortunate, that we don't have a very big pitching staff," Thomas said, "But it's my last year, and I'm going to do whatever I can."
This year, Thomas started all six games against Alabama and Arkansas, and Missouri ended up with a 2-4 record. After three innings in the final game against Arkansas, the familiar, yet unwelcome feeling of fatigue set in again. Thomas was done.
Now, entering a weekend series at LSU, Earleywine has to decide how to use his ace. Rather than starting her all three games, he is considering starting her in only two, but which two depends on how she feels.
“You could sit around and think about all kinds of scenarios. Fact of the matter is, it’s deeper than that. It’s about how Chelsea feels, it’s not just about a strategy, a war strategy, it’s about, 'How do you feel, hun?'" Earleywine said. "And that’s really the biggest determining factor.”
Earlier in the season, Earleywine thought that having Thomas pitch every game could potentially condition her for the NCAA postseason. But now that she has become more fatigue-prone and a new rise-ball delivery causes her to blister, he's not so sure.
"I’m praying that that's the case. I'm praying that three weeks from now she goes, ‘I’m feeling pretty good, I’m hardly ever getting a blister anymore,'" Earleywine said, "But it may not, and I have to plan as if it’s not. I hope for the best, I plan for the worst.”
Earleywine said he plans to start Thomas on Friday in Game 1 and go from there..