Column: Hainey helps MU softball get its swing back

In a way, the Missouri softball team played out its season in one game on Senior Day against Baylor on Saturday.

The Tigers started their season ranked in the top 10 in the country as reigning Big 12 Tournament champions. Last year's team also compiled a school-record 50 victories and a berth in the Women's College World Series.

Missouri played up to the expectations at the start of the season, splitting two game sets at Alabama and Arizona, both ranked second in the country at the time. Rarely presented with another challenge, the team rattled off 17 wins in a row en route to a 22-3 record in pre-conference play.

On Saturday, Missouri ho-hummed Baylor to a scoreless tie through the first two innings despite a raucous crowd of 821 encapsulating University Field on a day with a latent threat of rain. (I should add Baylor brought its own cheering section, in which I somehow found myself smack dab in the middle.)

The third inning brought trouble. Baylor hit a two-run home run to take the lead, and the falling raindrops made an assist to the fans' momentary depression.

It wasn't the first time the Tigers needed a comeback.

Coinciding with the opening of conference play, Missouri lost its ace pitcher, sophomore Chelsea Thomas. At the time, Thomas rushed out to a 12-1 record in the team's first 25 games. To clarify, Thomas individually recorded wins in 48 percent of the team's games. She was clearly the team's most valuable player.

But then it was over. After complaining of soreness for weeks, Thomas revealed a stress fracture in her throwing arm. It was likely a season-ending injury.

The Tigers were ranked third in the country, dreaming of a return appearance to the WCWS. A week later, they found themselves near the bottom of the Big 12 standings, losing three of their first four conference games. Coach Ehren Earleywine needed someone to step up and stabilize the pitching staff.

Jana Hainey, one of only three seniors on the team, assumed the leadership role on the staff, earning a 7-1 record heading into Saturday's game against BU and 2-1 in Big 12 play with an earned run average hovering around 3.00.

After giving up the lead on Saturday, Hainey settled down.

Cheered on by Hainey, the Tigers responded in the fourth, scoring five runs headlined by freshman designated player Nicole Hudson's three-run blast over the center field wall. Missouri never looked back and won the game 9-2.

After taking some time to re-evaluate their identity, the Tigers have now won 14 of their last 15 games. Hainey's eighth victory of the year represented MU's 40th overall (versus nine losses), bolstered by a 25-3 record at University Field. Missouri is again ranked in the top 10 nationally.

Hainey herself had a large cheering section, bringing about 15 family members to watch her performance on Senior Day. The most noticeable were Hainey's father, Rex, and older sister, Jill, who held up a giant photo of Hainey's face throughout the game beyond the right field wall.

Hainey's father went one step further during the Senior Day ceremonies following the game, advertising Hainey's phone number for pitching lessons.

"He put that in our yard this summer," Hainey said afterward, according to the Columbia Missourian. "I was so embarrassed. He was trying to help out I guess."

Although she will "maybe" give lessons, Hainey can certainly expect a lot of calls if the Tigers can climb back to the 50-win plateau.

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