No fans, players, or coaches bickered or fought, but under the lights of the UK softball complex occurred the prelude to the big dance Wednesday.
UK and U of L.
Unlike the game that will take place Saturday, the roles reversed entering Wednesday’s matchup with the Cats (15-16, 2-4 SEC) playing the underdog to the undefeated No. 11 Cardinals (27-0, 3-0 Big East), the nation’s lone unbeaten team.
The pitching for each team set the pace early. Heading into the fourth inning, a double by senior Brittany Cervantes was all that either side could manage to put in the field-of-play.
Senior pitcher Chanda Bell got hot early with two strikeouts in the first inning. The second saw the same with two out of three batters being fanned.
By the time the fourth inning rolled around, each team had stood on their ground on the defensive front.
“Early on we were able to get some hits, but not get any timely hits,” UK head coach Rachel Lawson said.
That was until the fourth inning’s leadoff batter, U of L’s Kristin Austin, blasted a Bell pitch over the wall in left-center field to give U of L the 1-0 advantage.
Austin’s homer was followed by a double that came just short of diving sophomore right fielder Ginny Carroll’s glove. Two fly-outs and a strikeout later — the Cats were out of harm’s way.
Lawson said all four pitchers in the game were dominant, but when it comes to the home run given up by Bell, she said the team doesn’t like to walk slappers due to the speed that they often possess on the base pad.
After giving up an additional hit in the fifth inning, Chanda Bell was replaced by fellow senior Rachel Riley.
Bell finished the game with three hits, one earned run and seven strike outs in five innings.
Junior Kara Dill rocketed a single past the Cardinals’ first and second baseman to put herself aboard first during an attempted rally by the Cats in the bottom of the sixth.
Moments later she nabbed second when a wild pitch was mishandled by the Cardinals’ catcher.
Despite her efforts, UK career home run leader Brittany Cervantes couldn’t advance her further as she struck out looking.
The inning ended with Rachel Riley grounding out to the shortstop.
Riley’s pitching duties during the top of the seventh were quick and efficient after the Cats forced the Cards into a fielder’s choice to prevent a runner from reaching scoring position. She followed up with a strikeout and forced fly out.
But as with any matchup between these in-state rivals, the drama was bound to come.
Carroll was the first to get aboard in the bottom of the seventh by way of a walk. After a strikeout by sophomore Ellen Weaver, sophomore Lauren Cumbess was able to connect on a pitch that ended in an error by the Cardinals’ second baseman. The error moved Carroll to third and set up Kentucky native, sophomore Emily Gaines, for attempted heroics with Carroll in scoring position.
A few near misses of the foul line later, Gaines struck out to end the game giving U of L the 1-0 win.
Lawson said “everyone was shocked” that the ball to put Carroll in scoring position actually landed to move the runner.
“Ginny (Carroll) should have gone and scored, but I think everyone was so shocked that the girl at second didn’t catch the ball — then when Cumbess didn’t run — I think the whole focus was over there, and I think Ginny just didn’t look ahead to take the extra base.”
Lawson noted that she gives her players the decision to move ahead at their own discretion.
After the game Lawson spoke on how this game couldn’t help make the weekend any bigger than it already is.
“I heard that story about those two people on dialysis so I feel like we should be fighting or something, but I don’t think (this game) is bigger because of the basketball weekend. I don’t think it can get any bigger, “ Lawson said. “We’re definitely the two best teams in the state of Kentucky. Both of us want to reign supreme.”
The Cats move on from their one-game homestand against the Cardinals with a series in Knoxville, Tenn., against their SEC rival Lady Volunteers. Game one takes place Friday at 6 p.m. Eastern time.