Missouri softball moves to postseason play Friday in the Eugene Regional in Eugene, Oregon. After a season that saw Missouri win its fewest games under coach Ehren Earleywine, the team still managed to make its 11th consecutive NCAA regional appearance and received the No. 2 seed in the region.
The Tigers (29-26, 7-16 SEC) will play the No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers (33-15, 12-12 Big Ten) on Friday in the first game of the regional. Here are a couple things to look out for in the matchup.
Which ace will perform better?
Wisconsin’s Kaitlyn Menz has been tremendous during her freshman campaign. In her first collegiate season, the Badgers ace won 23 games and posted a 2.34 ERA. Menz also recorded five or more strikeouts in 15 of her appearances this season. Missouri’s hitters will have to be careful and wait for good pitches against Menz, as one of her few flaws is her control on the mound. Menz walked five or more batters six times this season, including a season-high seven against Illinois in April.
The Tigers workhorse on the mound this season has been senior Cheyenne Baxter. Baxter won 16 games, including seven in Southeastern Conference play, where she was the only Missouri pitcher to record a win. Baxter will likely use her changeup to complement her rise ball and her drop ball against the Badgers. After an April game against the University of Omaha-Nebraska, senior catcher Kirsten Mack said that when Baxter’s changeup is working, it makes her other pitches more effective because hitters can’t sit on two speeds.
“It’s dirty,” Mack said after the game. “The key to [the changeup’s effectiveness] is it looks like a drop ball coming out of her hand. Everything looks the same and then you start to swing and it slows up on you.”
Can Missouri’s defense hold it together?
Baxter is a contact pitcher and will need the defense behind her to perform well. Missouri’s defense has been a rollercoaster this season, especially at third base, where the team is still looking for a replacement for the injured Amanda Sanchez.
Against Ole Miss on May 6, Missouri committed seven errors, breaking the previous program high for a single game. Those errors helped Ole Miss score 12 runs and allowed the Rebels to win by run-rule in six innings. During Friday’s game versus Wisconsin, Missouri’s fielders will have to be disciplined to avoid helping a Wisconsin offense that ranks in the top 30 in the NCAA in scoring.
The Tigers need continued production from Kirsten Mack
Kirsten Mack has been a steadying presence behind the plate and in the batter's box this season for the Tigers. Thursday morning, Mack was named to the 2017 National Fastpitch Coaches Association Third Team Southeast All-Region for the first time in her career.
The senior is hitting .340 this season to go along with nine home runs and 37 RBIs. Mack also leads Missouri in multi-hit and multi-RBI games, with 18 and 11, respectively. The Tigers will need everything they can get from the senior both at the plate and behind it.
This season, Mack has thrown out 17 baserunners from behind the plate. That figure leads the SEC and leaves the opposition hesitant to steal on Missouri’s pitchers. Against Wisconsin, the Tigers will need the best of both worlds from their senior leader.
First pitch Friday is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. CT and will be shown on ESPN.
Edited by Eli Lederman | email@example.com