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Ehren Earleywine had a plan.
"The plan was to rest the first game and it came through for us," Chelsea Thomas said, looking at her coach. "He's a genius."
The Tigers came into Sunday having to win just once in two tries to win the NCAA Regional. So Earleywine's plan was to rest his ace in game one and hope to get by with Nicole Hudson on the mound. If necessary, he would bring Thomas back in game two. It was necessary, and it worked, as the Tigers beat Hofstra 5-0 in Sunday's second game to move on to the Super Regional.
Mizzou had just five hits and one run in its first 12 innings against Hofstra pitcher Olivia Galati. The Tigers picked the right time to bunch a few together.
"She's definitely a great pitcher," first baseman Kelsea Roth said. "I feel like the more we got to see her, the more at bats we got, we were definitely more comfortable the second game."
Mizzou got a home run and a double from Roth to spearhead a eight-hit attack the decisive game. Hudson keyed a three-run fifth with a two-run home run. That was plenty with their ace in the circle to move Mizzou on to the Super Regional round next weekend.
"Once we got a few runs, the rest was in Chelsea Thomas' hands," Earleywine said. "And we usually know how that ends."
"We know that one is usually pretty good for Chelsea," Roth said. "We wanted to get her more just in case. I think five is perfect."
Thomas was close to perfect herself. The Tiger ace struck out nine and allowed just two baserunners all day. In fact, Hofstra hit only two balls out of the infield. The Pride had one batter reach on an error and another on a double on a ball that could have been caught had right fielder Carlie Rose not misread it off the bat.
"When you're at a season-ending game, potentially, you dig down pretty deep," Thomas said. "I think our team did as a whole and we weren't losing that game."
"We knew that if we scored first, we had a good chance to win the game," Hudson said. "We're pretty mature as a team. Everybody knew what we had to do. No one was freaking out or panicking."
Earleywine knew he was taking a risk by resting Thomas.
"Very risky. A lot of gambling going on. This is probably the most pressure that I've ever felt as a head coach because if at any time we would have lost on Friday or Saturday, it would have meant real trouble for us," Earleywine said. "Every team that I've ever coached, we've had a pretty good number two pitcher that could kind of pull you out of a loser's bracket, but that's not necessarily the case with this team. You're hanging on every pitch because you know if one thing goes wrong, your season's over this weekend. Not only could you get knocked out of a tournament, but get knocked out of a regional. And our standards are much higher than that here.
"I could have ended up looking like the dumbest coach in America."
Instead, they were calling him a genius.
Game One Recap: Missouri was in game two only because it got beat in Sunday's first game. Earleywine had hoped Hudson could hold Hofstra down enough and Mizzou's bats would come alive that the Tigers could end the regional early.
Instead, the Pride used a nine-run third inning to beat Mizzou 10-0 in a game shortened to five innings by the mercy rule. It was the most lopsided loss of Missouri's then 37-12 season.
Hofstra shortstop Becca Bigler struck the first blow with a three-run home run deep over the left wall through a stiff wind. Princess Krebs' throwing error allowed two more runs and the Pride plated six unearned by the time the inning was over.
"We had a plan and the plan actually worked out perfectly just like we thought," Hudson said. "But I was still going out there trying to win that first one and just didn't quite have the same kind of stuff I did earlier this week."
Looking Ahead: Mizzou will face 11th-seeded Washington next weekend in the Super Regional in Columbia. The Huskies beat Hawaii 8-0 on Sunday to win their regional in three games. It is a rematch of the 2011 Supers...the last year Missouri went to the Women's College World Series.
"We don't know a whole lot about them yet, but we played them two years ago here. Same pitcher, so we're gonna have some film and some looks," Hudson said. "I'm feeling pretty confident about it. We're just really glad to be able to host another regional."
And perhaps most importantly, there will be no more plans, no more games sacrificed. The Tigers feel they can ride their ace the rest of the way.
"I think Chelsea is gonna be able to throw the duration from here on out," Earleywine said. "First time in six weeks, symptom free.
"It's been such a battle. Like half of my day is spent dealing with the Chelsea situation. Whether it's with media or the trainers or the doctors or the pitching coach or whoever that may be, half of my day is spent trying to figure out how to best manage and put Chelsea in situations to succeed. And now, knowing that potentially she's out of the woods, no symptoms, could mean that I actually get to focus on the other nine players in the lineup which would be a lot of fun for me."
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