Head Coach Ehren Earleywine and the Tigers open the 2011 season on Friday
Feb. 15, 2011
Part One: Infielders and Catchers
We wrap up our two-part preview of the 2011 Tiger softball team by looking at the outfielders, the pitching staff, the team's depth and the schedule.
There's one easy way to describe the battle brewing in left field: chaos. With Simmons moving to catcher, and Schneider, who played some outfield last season, graduating, the Tigers currently have six different players battling for the position. Earleywine said simply, "it's committee right now." With over 60 games,
these six players will have plenty of time to show why they deserve to get the nod at the position and in the lineup.
"Krebs, Schweisberger, (Kathryn) Poet, (Shana) White, (Alaina) Burkhart and (Taylor) Duplechain - all those people are fighting for left field," said Earleywine. "I think Krebs, Schweisberger and Poet right now are going to do the majority of the rotation through there."
Poet has been in the rotation for the past few years, and Earleywine thinks she just a few things away from running away with the spot. Last year she struggled at the plate after missing the first month or so with injury, forcing Earleywine to look at other options. If she becomes a little more confident out in the field and works on pulling the ball a bit more - Earleywine says she's got a little pop when she does - she'll be the left fielder.
Until then, however, it's wide open, and with other options someone always has a chance to step up. The team had high expectations for Duplechain, a freshman, but she's still nursing an injury suffered in the fall and will be out another month or so. White, a senior, brings four years of experience and success to the club and will be the Tigers' top pinch running option. Burkhart is a senior transfer who played two years of junior college ball, where she had big time success, before playing at Missouri State last season. Her ability to hit the low ball could help find her a spot in the lineup against some drop ball pitchers.
Center field for Missouri will be occupied by the same person who has occupied it in each of the last three seasons, and that's two-time All-American Rhea Taylor. Taylor earned her second career All-American honor last season after completely rewriting the Missouri record books. She set a new school record with a .452 batting average, tied her own runs scored record with 64, had the second most hits ever with 85, had a .718 slugging percentage - seventh best at Mizzou, ran out eight triples - tied for eighth most in a year and swiped 48 bases, the second most in a season. On top of that, she set new career records in stolen bases with 141 and runs scored at 182.
She's just 12 stolen bases shy of breaking the Big 12 Conference all-time record, and she even blasted eight home runs last year. After spending much of offseason working on her drag bunting ability - probably the only part of her offensive game that would have been considered weak last year - Taylor's improvement there makes things even tougher on opposing teams. With her improved drag bunting, it's not out of the realm of possibility for her to flirt with a .500 batting average this season.
"I think it's possible, it might be a longshot, but there's a chance," said Earleywine. "Her drag bunting now may be her best tool - it's gone to another level."
Taylor might have shocked some people last year while blasting eight home runs, but Earleywine says it's no surprise to him. She's someone who has the ability to hit more than 15 home runs a season, but with all the tools that she has, it's probably unlikely.
"I think she's a seven to 12 home run kid, somewhere in there," stated Earleywine. "She has so many other tools where she doesn't need to use her power all the time; when she swings away it's situational. If she batted every single at bat and never slapped or bunted she'd probably hit 15 home runs. There's no comparison, by far, she's the strongest kid on our team."
Ashley Fleming has this corner outfield spot locked up after a breakout sophomore campaign that saw her put up a line of .363/.473/.623 with nine home runs and 44 driven in. She roped 11
doubles, posted a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 27:18 and swiped 15 bags in 18 attempts. On April 26, she was named National Player of the Week by USA Softball after going 10-for-13 with three doubles, two home runs, eight runs batted in, seven runs scored, and four walks while also swiping three bags in as many attempts in the previous week. Out of all the offensive players who deservedly got a lot of fanfare - Taylor, Hudson, Marston - Fleming was arguably the team's best offensive weapon that no one talked about. As for this year, both Earleywine and volunteer assistant coach Phil Bradley think the sky is the limit for Fleming.
"Today she's our best hitter on the team - she's our three hitter," Earleywine said. "As good as she was last year - the second half of the season she especially hit really well - she's been that way since the beginning of the fall. Coach Bradley always says to me, partially joking but partially serious, `Player of the Year.' She just hits moonshots to all fields."
While the season-ending injury to Chelsea Thomas was devastating last year, looking ahead to this year, it might turn out to have been a blessing in disguise. With Kristin Nottelmann having to step into the No. 1 pitcher role - and have great success doing so - the Tigers will put two pitchers in the circle who have No. 1 starter experience and Women's College World Series experience.
"They should be each other's best friend," said Earleywine. "I told them both, `you aren't one and two, you're 1a and 1b.'"
Arguably the hardest throwing pitcher the country, Thomas went in to last season with an improved repertoire. With a rise ball, drop ball and improved changeup, there aren't too many pitchers who have played this game who can throw all three pitches and throw 70 miles per hour on top of it.
"If she does all year what she can do when she's healthy, she'll be the most notable pitcher in the country. I really believe that," Earleywine said. "I don't think anyone can pitch like her. As a matter of fact, I don't think softball has seen a pitcher like her. No one throws as hard as she throws with up, down and change. Cat Osterman has up, down and change but Cat Osterman throws in the low 60's. Jennie Finch throws 67-68-69 miles per hour, but she doesn't have those three pitches. Danielle Lawrie throws really hard, but doesn't have the down ball that Chelsea has. You can go right down the line - Michelle Smith, Lisa Fernandez, you can go all of them - they have components of what she does, but none have the velocity, the spin or the three pitches. I think she could be the best ever - if she stays healthy."
Before Thomas went down with an injury in late March, she was already living up to the hype. The Pleasantville, Iowa, native had put up a record of 12-1 with a 1.72 ERA and had already beaten the likes of Alabama, Arizona and Michigan. She struck out 123 batters and walked only 24,
and had already thrown two no-hitters. After last season, the staff realizes they need to be extra cautious with both Thomas and Nottelmann.
"Once you get into conference play you have to go with the hot hand and I think we'll have a good idea of what Chelsea can and cannot do in terms of her stamina and in terms of her pain tolerance," Earleywine stated. "Right now she feels no pain, but she's fatigued on that second day. If that fatigue continues, we're not going to throw her on day two because fatigue leads to injuries. The first 30 or 40 games are going to be very telling for us in how we pitch those kids in the second half of the season."
But as Earleywine said, if Thomas can't go, then the experience and confidence that Nottelmann gained from last season will play a huge role for this squad. Last year, Nottelmann went 24-9 with a 2.09 ERA. She struck out 165 batters in 194 innings and limited hitters to a .215 average. However, Nottelmann truly shined in the postseason, where she went 5-2 with a 1.47 ERA, striking out 30 and walking just seven in 43 innings pitched.
"I think the success she had last year helped her and now she knows that she can compete against good teams, she can beat them, she can compete in the World Series," said Earleywine.
She had did all that success with a stress fracture in her hand that no one on the team knew about, due to an adjustment with her rise ball grip. Earleywine says they've modified the grip again, and he believes that she'll be just as effective as she was last postseason while also avoiding injury.
"We've taken her pinky off the ball. That was the main thing - it used to be on the ball so heavy that it was killing her ability to snap the ball. We can do the same thing by doing this and her rise ball is as good or better than it was at the end of last year with zero pain."
After Thomas and Nottelmann, the Tigers have two other options in Lindsey Muller and Lisa Simmons - both of which collected some innings last year. Muller had 15 appearances and posted a 1.75 earned run
average, but her shoulder injury limited her innings later in the season. Earleywine doesn't expect dominating performances from these two at this point, but has made it clear to them that their main goal should be to keep the Tiger offense in the game.
"The games that those kids are going to be throwing are going to be games that we don't need to win anyways," Earleywine said. "What I've told them is `when I give you the ball, first of all, be ready. It cannot be a surprise. You will pitch because we're going to keep Chelsea and Kristin healthy. The second thing I told them is that we aren't expecting them to throw a shutout. You don't have to feel that burden. What we do expect from you is to give us a chance. Keep it under five runs, because we can score more than five runs."
Rest of the Squad
With the Tigers returning 17 of last season's 22 players, they bring back a lot of depth and a lot of experience. Last season they used most of their bench, constantly rotating people in to pinch hit, pinch run or substitute in defensively. Earleywine feels that this year's team will do more of the same, and that all 22 players will have a role and an impact.
"I don't think there's anybody on our team right now that won't have some sort of contribution - whether it's pinch running, defensive innings, pinch hits, something," said Earleywine. "I don't think there is anyone on our team who doesn't have something that we can't use at some point over the course of the weekend."
Because of the team's depth and experience, Earleywine says he doesn't feel the need to rush the freshmen into tough game situations like he had to last year with Marston and Hudson. His goal is to ease them in to ideal spots instead of "throwing them into the fire."
"We're going to throw them out there when it looks good for them. We won't toss them into the fire against Cal or Washington, but we're going to slowly put them in in comfortable spots to ease them into it a bit. This is the first time since I've been here that we haven't needed to count on any freshmen going into the season, and that's a comfortable feeling when you can let those kids develop at their own pace."
The Tigers will play eight teams ranked in the preseason top-25 while competing in five tournaments over the course of the year, two of which are at home. They open in San Diego, Calif., with Fresno State, Cal, Washington, San Diego State and Sacramento State, and then head to Tampa, Fla., where they'll face Temple, Illinois State, Alabama, USF and Western Michigan. Plenty of tough competition there, but Earleywine feels that the schedule is a bit easier than last year, which was his intention when making it.
"This is a tough schedule, but last year's was tougher," claimed Earleywine. "I did that on purpose last year so we would be ready - I knew Hudson and Marston needed to get ready so I was willing to take some on the chin even though we ended up winning a bunch of those games. Last year we faced so many good pitchers early that a lot of our hitters spent the rest of the year trying to work themselves out of that stupor. I think with this year's schedule some of our kids can get some quality at bats and can walk away from a weekend going `ok, my average is intact, my ego is intact, I can go into next weekend relaxed instead of having to press.'"
The Tigers will spend most of the month of March in the state of Missouri, beginning with their home opener against Drake on March 2. They head to the Missouri Breast Cancer Awareness Tournament in St. Louis that weekend where they'll take on SEMO, SLU, Missouri State and UMKC. From there, they play 11 straight at University Field, going up against Southern Illinois, Arkansas, Illinois State, Illinois, North Dakota State, Western Michigan and Minnesota. Earleywine hopes to use a lot of those early midweek games as experience builders for a lot of the younger players.
"We're going to start using Wednesday's to start using a lot of kids that are on the bench usually so that when it comes to the weekend, and you need a pinch runner or a pinch hitter, or need someone to come in and play a little defense, you've gotten to see how those kids handle game situations on Wednesdays," said Earleywine.
At the end of March, the Tigers head into conference play. Missouri will play host to Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State while traveling to Kansas, Texas Tech, Baylor, Nebraska and Oklahoma State. The regular conference season plays an even bigger role this year with there being no more Big 12 tournament at the end of the season.
"What that does is that it moves our conference season back into that weekend [before postseason starts], and that gives you another weekend on the frontend for another tournament which allows these kids another experience. `Oh we got to go here. Oh we got to play that team.' I think that's what college ball is about - the experience of it all," stated Earleywine.
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