COLUMBIA — First Amanda Sanchez, now Kirsten Mack.
Three and a half weeks after the Tigers lost their starting third baseman for the season to a left elbow injury, another Missouri softball veteran suffered a potentially serious injury.
On Cheyenne Baxter's second pitch of the game, Mack dove attempting to catch a bunt that popped up. She landed awkwardly and slowly turned over, holding her left shoulder. A trainer crouched next to her as Mack sat in the dirt, and followed Mack to the dugout as she left the field under her own power. She didn't reappear in the dugout until the second game in the doubleheader sweep.
The official word from Missouri's trainer is that Mack suffered a shoulder stinger and would be out for the day, though she is hopeful for this weekend's series against No. 7 Auburn.
"That's exactly what I got," coach Ehren Earleywine said after the second game. "I even talked to Kirsten in the middle of the second game, and she said the exact same thing, she said 'I'll be fine by the weekend.' So, praying that that's the case."
Mack has been a four-year starter for Earleywine at catcher, and had been one of two Tigers, alongside freshman Braxton Burnside, to start every game this season. Since Mack did not start in the second game, Burnside is now the lone Tiger to start in all 39 games.
Her replacement, sophomore Rylee Pierce, played well, and though she had only caught in one game this season, she played catcher in high school and in collegiate fall ball.
"Starting the first game in right field was more of a shock than catching, because I haven't played there since fall," Pierce said. "So I wasn't nervous to play out there, but I'm more comfortable at home anyway. But it's definitely a weird day when I go 14 innings (sic) without playing first."
"I don't practice it every day by any means," she added.
Pierce caught all four of Missouri's pitchers in the doubleheader. Cheyenne Baxter started the first game, allowing one earned run on three hits. She was relieved by Parker Conrad in the fifth inning, and Conrad threw 33 pitches in two innings of work, giving up one earned run on two hits. Pierce caught three innings from Madi Norman, two from Danielle Baumgartner and two from Baxter in the second game. The trio combined allowed four earned runs on 12 hits.
"Since I have caught all three, I've caught them in inter-squads in the spring, I'm pretty aware of what's going on when I'm at first base," Pierce said. "I watch the pitch calls and everything and I enjoy that stuff. So it hasn't been a huge factor, and I saw the ball pretty well tonight."
This Missouri team, at 23-16, is within reasonable range to set a new season-high for losses in a season during Earleywine's tenure. The 2007 team, Earleywine's first season at Missouri, lost 24 times, and Earleywine has dropped more than 17 games in a season just three times (17 in 2008, 18 in 2014). In short, this is a team that can ill afford to lose any more veterans for extended periods of time.
That 2007 team was also the last time Earleywine and company lost to Western Illinois. Since the 9-8 defeat, Missouri has played the Leathernecks every season, excluding the 2008 campaign, and have won all 18 of those games, including Tuesday's games.
The Tigers played well immediately after Mack's exit, scoring five first-inning runs and racking up twelve total hits on the way to a 10-2, sixth-inning run-rule win over Western Illinois (16-23). Natalie Fleming and Chloe Rathburn led the way, each driving in three runs. Each drove in two runs in the bottom of the first, Rathburn on a one-out double to center, and Fleming on a two-out shot to left field, her sixth of the season.
Missouri won the second game in a more exciting fashion, walking off a 6-5 win thanks to Kolby Romaine. The Tigers played catch-up with Western Illinois all game, and needed a score to stay alive after Holly Hoelting hit a solo home run in the top of the seventh inning off of reliever Cheyenne Baxter. Regan Nash walked, but her pinch-runner Gabby Garrison was forced out on a fielder's choice hit by Braxton Burnside. The next batter, Chloe Rathburn, hit a single to left, and Burnside, employing some of the most aggressive base running this season for the Tigers, tested Aly Compton's arm and sprinted from first to third.
"It was" her call to run "and it wasn't a smart one, by any stretch," Earleywine said. "But, I tell them 'If the ball's in front of you out there and you can see it, you know your speed and jump better than I do.' She went on it, again, I think if you're playing in the SEC, game over. We just keep trying to learn from these things, but there's a fine line as a coach that you cross: do you want your kids to be aggressive? The answer is yes, and if you're always scolding them for trying to take the extra base, then all of a sudden they tighten up."
After Burnside's high-risk, high-reward decision paid off, Natalie Fleming drew a walk, and sophomore Kolby Romaine put Brooke Stulga's through the gap between second base and shortstop. Rathburn went all out for home but the throw never came.
"Thank God Kolby clutched up," Earleywine said. "I walked in the locker room and I was like 'Your first name now begins with a C, because you're clutch. C-o-l-b-y.'"
Missouri was out-hit in the second game, 12 to 9, and if not for two Western Illinois errors, the game could have been even further out of reach by the bottom of the seventh.
"Like Gary Link (former Missouri basketball standout and basketball color commentator) always says, 'Those girls are on scholarship too,'" Earleywine said. "You have to play well to win, and we didn't have any enthusiasm, either."
Earleywine stressed that he didn't think his team played more than two good innings against the Leathernecks on Tuesday. That will have to change this weekend, as the unranked Tigers of Missouri head to Auburn, Alabama, to take on the No. 7 Auburn Tigers.
"At Auburn, if we don't play 14 good innings, or 21 good innings, you get run ruled."
Supervising editor is Jonathan McKay.