After the 2006 season for the MU softball team, expectations were high for starting pitcher Jen Bruck. After all, she was the workhorse of the staff, pitching 260 innings and winning 24 games. She also carried the Tigers at the plate, leading the team in nine statistical categories. To top off her season, Bruck was named All-Big 12 Conference.
Most of the pressure to duplicate those numbers this year came from Bruck herself.
“Personal goals of mine were to be at least where I was at last year, and to go from there,” Bruck said. “As far as my batting average, home runs, stuff like that, I wanted to be better than I was last year.”
However, Bruck got off to an anemic start this year by getting only one hit in her first 15 at bats. That hit didn’t come until Missouri’s eighth game of the season. Now 48 games into the season, she is batting .242 with only five home runs, which falls well short of her .387 batting average and 10 home runs from last season. Bruck said that while her numbers may be low now, she’s getting more comfortable and confident at the plate as the season has gone on.
While Bruck has failed to put up numbers like last year at the plate, her slump at the plate hasn’t affected her prowess in the circle. With Sunday’s doubleheader split over No. 2 Oklahoma (43-5, 8-3 in Big 12 play), Bruck moved to 14-5 on the year. And as the season has progressed, she has only improved.
“What’s impressive is that she’s gotten better in conference play in the last couple of weeks,” Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine said, citing Bruck’s home runs against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma and her pitching performances against Texas as evidence. “She’s one of those kids who, the tighter the situation and the bigger the situation, the better she’ll do.
“Here we are in conference play, and there’s no better time than that.”
Not only has Bruck improved in conference play for Missouri (30-18, 6-1), but she’s been dominant against two of the best pitchers in the nation. Over the past three weeks, Bruck started four times against Texas fire-baller Meagan Denny (18-11, 1.22 ERA) and Oklahoma ace Lauren Eckermann (27-2, 1.25 ERA). In those four games, Bruck has gone 3-1, her only loss coming in the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader. Her most impressive performance came in the first game on Sunday against the Sooners. Bruck silenced the nation’s top-scoring offense, holding the Sooners to five hits and no earned runs in a 5-1 complete game victory. The Tigers lost 8-3 in the second game.
With her performance against Denny and Eckermann, Earleywine said Bruck deserves the respect that the Longhorn and Sooner pitchers get.
“I don’t think from a statistical outlook you can compare them, because of Jen’s early struggles,” he said. “But if you look at her last two or three weeks statistically, I’ll match her up against anyone in the Big 12.”
What makes Bruck so dominant is her five-pitch repertoire, something Bruck says is uncommon in collegiate softball.
“Your top pitchers have three pitches, and they’ll stick with those three,” Bruck said. “Some pitchers can get away with throwing just one or two pitches.”
Bruck mixes up screwballs, curveballs, riseballs, dropballs and changeups to keep hitters off-balance and confused. Bruck said she understands she isn’t a power pitcher like Eckermann or Denny, so she goes into every game looking to keep the ball low, force ground balls and use her defense.
“For me, my motto is to pitch shutouts,” Bruck said. “The way I see myself, I don’t put any limits to what I’m capable of doing. My goal is to someday be on the Olympic team, so I want to be up there with the best of them.”