Missouri’s offense welcomes Auburn, freshman aces to Columbia

Ben Miglore

Missouri softball finally got some home games under its belt in recent weeks. While the weather might not have been ideal, the home-field advantage showed in its 6-0 record at Mizzou Softball Stadium. The toughest test so far comes to town Friday in Auburn.

Auburn brings with it the weakest scoring offense in the Southeastern Conference. The other 12 teams in the conference have each scored at least 130 runs, while Auburn sits at 94 coming into the series.

Missouri, in contrast, ranks first or second in the conference in almost every offensive statistic. Led by Brooke Wilmes’ .432 batting average from the leadoff spot, MU ranks second in average (.353), first in runs (217), second in slugging (.610) and first in total bases (456).

In spite of being on opposite ends of the scoring spectrum, AU’s record is 18-6 and it joins No. 18 Missouri in the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association Coaches poll at No. 24.

The reason lies in pitching, particularly that of Maddie Penta and Shelby Lowe. The freshman pair have combined for 116⅔ of Auburn’s 163 innings this year and have three SEC Freshman of the Week awards between them.

Behind them, Auburn does not run up the score and grinds opponents to grueling seven-inning defeats. Seven of its wins this season have come with neither team scoring more than three runs. The score is rarely out of hand, giving opponents hope that the game is within reach only to have Lowe, Penta and company drain that hope as the innings tick away.

Penta started the season on fire, pitching complete games in her first five starts and posting an ERA of 0.85 with 49 strikeouts. That five-game stretch included a win over SEC opponent South Carolina and a pair of no-hitters, one of which came with a side of 17 Ks against Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis on Feb. 27. Penta earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors twice, once for each of the no-nos.

Since then, Penta has come back down to earth. In her past six outings, she has lasted five innings only once, with an ERA of 5.33 over that span. The difference mostly lies in quality of opponent. After the blazing start, she faced No. 4 Alabama twice and No. 12 Florida State. The Missouri bats will be looking to make sure the early season edition of Penta does not return this weekend.

While Penta has faltered as the season progressed, Lowe has stayed strong. She has maintained an ERA under 1.00 since her second appearance of the season, currently sitting at 0.80. That mark is good for third in the SEC and includes a complete-game performance in a 2-1 win over Florida State. Lowe also has the team lead in strikeouts with 82, having hit double digits four times.

The numbers are impressive, but Lowe and Penta have yet to face an offense quite as good as Missouri. Not even Alabama has an offense that compares to MU’s at this point in the season.

Seven out of the eight everyday players hit over .300 and Kendyll Bailey, the only one who doesn’t, still has a .328 on-base percentage. The others all have an on base percentage above .400. Six of them have 20 or more RBI. Hatti Moore and Kimberly Wert have hit 10 plus homers. Even if Lowe, Penta and the rest of Auburn get through those, there is a seemingly limitless collection of productive players that Missouri coach Larissa Anderson can bring in off the bench.

As long as Missouri’s pitching does not repeat its performance from games two and three against Georgia, where it gave up a combined 22 runs, they likely can keep a struggling Auburn offense at bay.