COLUMBIA, Mo. — In the third-base dugout of the Missouri softball stadium, third baseman Kim Wert rolled her eyes.
The Tigers had just completed a sweep of Texas A&M with a 4-0 win Saturday afternoon — their first three-game conference series sweep at the new softball stadium and second sweep this season — and starting pitcher Madi Norman had been asked a question about the team being picked last in the preseason coaches poll.
It's a question that has been asked a lot of a team that won six conference games a season ago and missed out on the Southeastern Conference Tournament in its own stadium. But it's also old news. The Tigers are 27-18 overall, 10-8 in conference, and not only in the top half of the SEC standings but just two games back of second-place LSU and a game behind third-place Tennessee and Mississippi.
"It definitely makes you play a little bit harder, so when they say, 'You're going to be last,' you're like, 'No, we're not,'" Wert said. "That's not happening. We're, what, top half in the SEC? So look at us go, really."
Wert hit her team-leading 16th home run of the season in the first inning, a two-run shot to right that scored Hatti Moore. Jazmyn Rollin started a two-out rally after being hit by a pitch, and the speedy shortstop came around to score from first on Moore's single to right when Kylie George did not handle the ball cleanly.
The Tigers added an insurance run in the fifth after Regan Nash reached on a dropped third strike, stole second and Rollin drove her home with a single to center. All four of Missouri's runs came with two outs.
But the most impressive player in Saturday's finale was Norman, who recorded her 13th win of the season and lowered her ERA to 2.86 with five scoreless innings. She allowed six hits and three walks while striking out six, and stranded nine of the 10 runners the Aggies that reached base.
"It's a combination of pitching and defense," Missouri coach Larissa Anderson said. "Our pitchers aren't striking out 21 batters, and our defense is making all the routine plays. You see how many runners that they left on base, I mean, there were times it was first and second with nobody out, and how clutch our pitching was.
"If our pitchers make good pitches, we're going to have those routine plays. They're going to have easy ground balls, they're going to have easy fly balls, and our pitchers did an unbelievable job today in keeping them off-balance and making great pitches when the pitches needed to be."
The Aggies loaded the bases in the second inning with two outs on a walk, a single and an error, but Brooke Wilmes read a fly ball to center perfectly and made a great play on the run to keep the visitors scoreless.
Texas A&M started the fifth inning with back-to-back singles, but Norman kept them from advancing with a flyout to center and then fanned the next two batters swinging to end the threat.
"It was really great to get two strikeouts," Norman said. "Definitely not something I expected, I just wanted to get ground balls and get out of there, but it's always nice to strike people out and not make the defense work."
Norman exited the game in the top of the sixth after a leadoff walk, and Cassie Gasper thew two hitless innings with a pair of strikeouts to end the game. The top of the seventh was the only 1-2-3 inning of the game for the Missouri defense.
The end of the conference season looks favorable for the Tigers. Missouri plays next weekend at Mississippi State (4-13, 12th in the SEC) and hosts South Carolina (7-10, 10th) May 3-5 to end the regular season.
Missouri hosts Southeast Missouri State in a doubleheader at 4 p.m. Tuesday.