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May 22, 2011DePaul's Alex Morocco rounded third base and saw her chance.
Missouri senior catcher Megan Christopher had just tagged out a runner at home and wandered far enough from the plate that Morocco thought she could score and break a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the 11th inning. And with a head first slide and a cloud of dust, she did just that. And mighty Missouri suddenly looked vulnerable.
Sandwiched between two relatively low-stress victories over Illinois State in NCAA Regional play on Saturday, Morocco's dash handed Mizzou a 2-1 loss to DePaul that knocked the Tigers to the brink of elimination and ended their 10-game Regional win streak, the last seven of which came at home.
The Tigers and Blue Demons will meet Sunday to determine the champion of the Columbia Regional and who will play Washington in the Super Regional round.
Missouri, champions of the Big 12 and the fifth overall seed in the national tournament, will need to win twice in order to keep its national title hopes alive.
"I don't think it was [DePaul's] pitching," said Missouri coach Ehren Earleywine on what plagued his team against the Blue Demons. "It was a lack of execution from our hitters. DePaul pitched well, but they didn't pitch great. We just hit really poorly If we don't do better tomorrow we'll lose."
Apart from their scratching across only five hits against DePaul, what may haunt the Tigers is the bizarre ending to the game.
The bottom of the 11th started with sophomore Jenna Marston fielding Katelyn Braget's ground ball and pulling senior Catherine Lee off the bag with her throw to first. After a sacrifice bunt moved pinch runner Brittney Yniguez over to second, Morocco got an infield single.
With Ali Warren up to bat, Morocco stole second base. Warren then grounded to Marston, who threw to Christopher to tag out Yniguez at the plate. Warren then rounded first to draw Christopher's attention, and Christopher moved toward the pitching circle to shorten a potential throw to second.
Meanwhile, Morocco rounded third and, noticing how far Christopher was from the plate, decided on her own to break for home. By the time Christopher noticed her coming, she was too late to keep her from scoring.
"I saw the runner getting to second and my catcher instincts say nobody gets to second," Christopher said. "I found myself too far out from the plate, and there she goes trotting in."
"I saw the catcher take about five steps up or so, and I rounded third base so I had a good jump, and I just went hoping to God I'd make it there," Morocco said.
DePaul coach Eugene Lenti was in the third base coaches' box and quickly realized Morocco had made a smart move.
"I knew the game was over before Alex touched the plate because I saw that there was no way the catcher was going to get her," Lenti said.
Chelsea Thomas struck out 11 in the hard-luck loss. The redshirt sophomore topped 100 pitches in falling to 27-6.
The Tigers had a chance to take the lead in top half of the inning when senior Rhea Taylor led off with a single and stole second base. After a fly out to left from sophomore Nicole Hudson, junior Ashley Fleming walked. Freshman Maddison Ruggeberg then skied a fly out to center field, but Taylor, thinking there were two outs in the inning, started running toward third and was easily doubled off.
In Missouri's first game of the day, the Tigers run-ruled Illinois State 12-3 in five innings. Junior Kristin Nottelmann went the distance, giving up three runs on five hits.
Nottelmann got the call again as Missouri eliminated the Redbirds 8-4 after losing to DePaul. She gave up four runs in seven innings and improved to 17-1.
The Tigers now turn to their rematch with the Blue Demons on Sunday. Three times this season Missouri came back to beat a team it had lost to the day before.
Earleywine said Thomas will back on the mound on Sunday.
"I'm just going to give her the ball in the first game and let her throw as long as she can throw," Earleywine said.
"I think this is do-or-die time," Thomas said. "They've got my arm as long as they need it."
The first game will start at 1 p.m. and a second will be played at 3 p.m., if necessary.
"DePaul pissed nine seniors off," Christopher said. "We're ready."