No, Rylea!! Smith ties it and walks it off; softball takes Alabama series


Kentucky freshman Rylea Smith hits the ball during the game against Marshall on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, at John Cropp Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 16-15. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Braden Ramsey

Heading into the bottom of the sixth, things felt dire for Kentucky. The Cats had hit the ball hard, but recorded only three singles through five innings, and only one since the first. They had just yielded three runs to the Crimson Tide in the top of the sixth, quadrupling their deficit in the blink of an eye. But when Erin Coffel lifted the first pitch she saw deep into the night at John Cropp Stadium, a spark was struck. And Kentucky fanned it into a flame.

Coffel’s two-run shot cut the margin to two; back-to-back homers from Renee Abernathy and Rylea Smith knotted things up in the bottom of the seventh. Then Smith reprised her hero role in the eighth, slapping an infield single to third to send Big Blue Nation home with not only an improbable game win, but series victory.

“Every single one of us in the dugout had faith [Abernathy and Smith] could do that,” Coffel told reporters postgame about the game-continuing dingers. “That was awesome.”

Abernathy, slotted in the eight hole, went over the wall opposite field on a 3-2 count to lead off what would customarily be the Cats’ final at-bat. Smith, in the nine spot, smashed an 0-1 pitch to right center field. It bounced off the top of the padding before skipping into the grass beyond, sending the Kentucky dugout and fans into a frenzy.

“The pitch was inside,” she said, recounting the moment. “I had been having trouble with [the inside pitch] the entire series. It has been an out pitch for me. I knew they’d have to come with it, and was waiting on it… and I got it.”

Tatum Spangler, after a walk, was able to scamper two bases amidst the chaos of a Grace Baalman strikeout in the bottom of the eighth. She stood on third, while Miranda Stoddard and Abernathy were brought aboard via intentional walk, putting Smith in a critical spot once more. She slapped a 1-0 pitch to Alabama shortstop Claire Jenkins; bouncing hard and high, the ball was in a tough position to be fielder, but Jenkins got her glove on it and fired home. Spangler’s foot clipped the upper left corner of the plate a split second before the ball nestled into Tide catcher Bailey Hemphill’s mitt, sealing the deal in thrilling fashion. For Smith, the result wasn’t surprising; the Cats were due to have something go their way.

“The entire time I think we just knew we’d be able to pull something together,” she said. “Things would have to fall eventually… it feels good to be able to bring it home for the team.”

Head coach Rachel Lawson reflected on the evening’s affair with her opening statement, taking a breath before saying, “What an amazing game, right?!” She then praised her team’s intangibles, believing the fight they showed exemplified what this team is: resilient.

“It says so much about how tough this team is,” she stated. “This is probably one of the best times I’ve had as a coach here at Kentucky.”

As she seemingly always does, Autumn Humes had a vital role in the UK-positive outcome. After going the distance in the circle on Sunday to orchestrate a Wildcat win to tie the series, she came on in relief of Baalman and fired 2.2 innings of one-hit ball. When a wild throw that couldn’t be wrangled in by Spangler allowed a ‘Bama runner to reach second with one out in the top of the eighth, she battled back from a 3-0 count on leadoff hitter KB Sides (batting .346 entering the game) to sit her down with a strikeout. She then threw three straight strikes to retire two-spot anchor Alexis Mack (hitting .432 coming into Monday) and preserve the tie. As you know, the Cats then won in the bottom of the frame. Coach Lawson made sure to give her fifth-year senior the attention her performance warranted postgame.

“I was so impressed with Autumn Humes,” she said. “It’s so hard to be so precise… just the amount of work and time she puts in [are admirable].”

The series finale played out just like that of a television program, holding its viewers attention until the very end. Lawson mentioned it’s something her squad strives to accomplish each time they take the field.

“We always talk about giving a show to the fans,” she said. “Tonight, we really did do that.”

While she certainly doesn’t want to make falling behind 4-0 a habit, she says this team has now proven to itself that it’s part of the country’s upper echelon.

“I think they believe they belong with the elite,” she commented. “[Historically], we grind games out, 1-0… we don’t win in these monster boxing matches a lot. [But] this team has embraced that role and enjoys being in it.”

And calls victories like this one the key to becoming better than good, or better than great, even.

“You always want to go from being a good team to a dominant team,” she said. “You have to win series like this to be able to do that.”

Kentucky now sits at 25-4 overall. Through two series of SEC play – at then-No. 5 Florida and hosting the No. 3 Crimson Tide – they rock a 3-3 conference record. Considering the level of competition, there isn’t much more they could have asked for.

The Cats take a temporary hiatus from the SEC gauntlet to face Morehead State on Wednesday, but they don’t get much of a reprieve. They hit the road for another top conference series on Thursday afternoon, traveling to Knoxville in advance of a three-game set with the Tennessee Lady Vols, another top-25 school. All three of the games are slated to appear on national television:

       – 5:00 p.m. E.T., ESPNU on Friday, Apr. 2

       – 6:00 p.m. E.T., ESPN2 on Saturday, Apr. 3

       – 2:00 p.m. E.T., ESPNU on Sunday, Apr. 4

Wednesday’s meeting with the Eagles has a 7:00 p.m. E.T. first pitch, with an SEC Network broadcast.