COLUMBIA — Texas A&M pitcher Kendall Potts has a devastating change-up.
It was important for the Missouri softball team, in its 4-3 win to open a three-game series Thursday at Mizzou Softball Stadium, not to fall behind early at the plate and become fodder for that off-speed.
All three hits that drove in runs for the Tigers came with zero or one strike in the count.
"It's really, get a good pitch early in the count," Missouri coach Larissa Anderson said of the team's approach at the plate. "Jump all over it early, and be able to put the pressure on them, rather than be back on your heels, defensive, and now you're protecting the strike zone rather than attacking the strike zone."
Kendyll Bailey turned on the first pitch she saw in the fourth inning, driving a single into right-center field to score two. It was her 18th hit of the season and ninth and 10th RBI, to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead.
Jazymn Rollin singled on a 2-1 pitch, which scored Regan Nash from first and put Missouri ahead 3-1 in the fifth. The Texas A&M outfielder threw the ball in to second base to hold Rollin to a single, and Nash never slowed down as she slid home safely.
Kolby Romaine sent an 0-1 pitch onto the hill beyond the left-field fence in the bottom of the sixth to provide the game-winning run.
These kinds of adjustments at the plate under Anderson and hitting coach Chris Malveaux are part of the reason why the Tigers are 25-16 and 8-8 in the Southeastern Conference, and far out-pacing their preseason projection of a last-place finish in the conference standings.
Madi Norman (Tipton High School) threw six innings of five-hit ball, giving up three earned runs and a walk against six strikeouts. She had to work around baserunners, as the Aggies' leadoff hitter reached in each of the first four innings — punctuated by a solo home run in the top of the fourth inning off the bat of Payton McBride — but otherwise kept that leadoff runner from coming around.
And her teammates were not phased when Texas A&M tied the game in the top of the fifth with a two-run home run to left that could have deflated them.
Enter Romaine, whose fifth homer of the season was the difference-maker.
"We understand that games can be won and lost in the first inning," Romaine said. "But it just shows how far this team has come. There was no shift on our side when they tied it up. We just knew we needed to get a few more hits, a few more runs. There was no panic, and that's all you can ask for out of a young team like this."
Eli Daniel picked up her sixth save of the season, tied for third-most in the nation, with an inning of scoreless work in the seventh. She can throw a curveball that tails away from either left- or right-handed hitters, which is a different look from the Tigers' usual two starters — Norman and Cassie Gasper both throw drop balls — and makes it that much more difficult for hitters to make adjustments.
"When you start a game, you kind of have to think long-term," Daniel said. "With closing a game, I just think about the next pitch. I find that easier. Madi honestly finds it easier to start a game, but I absolutely love closing."
One of the other things Anderson can be credited with in her first season is figuring out how to best use a pitching rotation that, with three newcomers and one transfer out, could have been crowded.
Norman had the most experience and took over the role of No. 1 starter this season and has thrown 124 innings, and Cassie Gasper has emerged as a solid No. 2 after transferring in from Dominican (Calif.), throwing 83 innings.
As a freshman at Brenau (Ga.), Daniel was named the NAIA pitcher of the year and set an NAIA record with 579 strikeouts in 327 innings pitched; this season she's thrown 46 innings and started three games.
Nalani Scates, Summer Shockley and Baleigh Koester have combined to throw 29 innings this season.
"Madi and Cassie have really done an unbelievable job in carrying this team, and Eli has been phenomenal coming in and being able to close out games for us," Anderson said. "And I know that we have two or three in the dugout that can be able to get the job done."
Missouri and Texas A&M (25-19, 3-13 SEC) play again at 6:30 p.m. today.