(Photos by Regina Lexi Rickert)
After a regional title last week, Kentucky softball has earned its second trip to the Super Regionals in the last three years. The No. 12 overall-seeded Wildcats won the Lexington regional after knocking off Marshall, then dispatching Virginia Tech twice to claim the second-ever regional victory for the program.
Kentucky is headed to Tempe, Arizona to face the No. 5-seeded Arizona State Sun Devils at Farrington Stadium. The Cats and the Devils will begin a best-of-three series Saturday night for a spot in Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series.
Kentucky (41-19) advanced out of the regionals thanks to marvelous pitching from freshman Kelsey Nunley. She went 3-1 over the weekend with a 0.83 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 25.1 innings. Lauren Cumbess started the winner-take-all game Sunday, posting a strong 3.2 innings pitched, allowing no runs and just two hits. That work opened the door for Nunley to come in and close it out.
At the plate, the offense ran through freshman slap-hitter Sylver Samuel who went 5-for-9 with three runs scored, three stolen bases, and a .556 on-base percentage. Samuel bats in the nine-hole and acts as a second lead-off hitter. When she gets on-base and the top of the order turns over, good things happen. Also helping the move runners over the weekend were junior Ginny Carroll (.429), and sophomore Griffin Joiner (.417).
The matchup with Arizona State will be fierce and the Wildcats are certainly the underdog in more ways than just ranking. The Sun Devils (48-10) enter the Tempe Super Regional with a stunning 38-3 home record and regular season series victories over No. 3 Oregon, No. 10 California, No. 12 UCLA, No. 14 Washington, No. 14 Stanford, and No. 23 Oregon State.
Perhaps even more daunting for the Cats; in the postseason under head coach Clint Meyers, ASU is 28-3 at home, and all six of the Sun Devils’ Women’s College World Series berths under Meyers have come through a Tempe Super Regional.
As a team, Arizona State is hitting .334 (8th nationally) with 92 home runs (4th), and 403 runs scored. By comparison, Kentucky is batting as a team .269 (138th), with 57 home runs (42nd). Pitching favors the Devils too — albeit not by much — with a 2.07 ERA (24th), versus Kentucky’s 2.69 ERA (76th).
One advantage the Cats have is this not being the first time these teams have met. While the year was still young and before the weather turned here in the Bluegrass state, Kentucky softball was beginning its season out west where it played in the Kajikawa Classic — a loaded tournament against three ranked teams. Kentucky opened its season with a victory over No. 3 California, and suffered its first loss against No. 4 Arizona State, losing 8-1 in its fourth game in two days.
In that game against the Sun Devils, Kentucky started Cumbess, who gave three innings, surrendering four hits and three earned runs; then followed in relief with Nunley, who gave three innings, while surrendering seven hits and five earned runs. It wasn’t the best performance for either pitcher and both have improved dramatically this season. It didn’t help that ASU ace Dallas Escobedo shut the Cats’ offense down either, only allowing five hits and one run while striking out eight batters.
Surely we will see a Nunley vs. Escobedo matchup on Saturday, but the confidence level of playing such a tough schedule this season and coming this far in the tournament has to improve the chances for Kentucky in a rematch.
If Kentucky wants a shot at the Women’s College World Series, it is going to have to keep this Super Regional a pitcher’s duel. Arizona State is too good in the circle overall to allow the Devils too many runs. Escobedo is on a current 31-inning streak without allowing an earned run and held batters in the regional to a 0.60 average. Throw in a second “ace” in the wings for ASU, Mackenzi Popescue who boasts a solid 2.03 ERA and ASU pitchers are set with a slim lead.
Kentucky will struggle at the dish against such elite and veteran pitching. So chipping away will be the game plan. Get a couple of runs across with small ball and aggressive base running, and then rely heavily on pitching and defense. Kelsey Nunley will have to work efficiently to keep herself in the ballgame, because without her the Wildcats will flounder. Lauren Cumbess will surely have an opportunity to pitch in relief or in a decisive game later this weekend, and though her innings will likely be few, they will be extremely important to help stretch Nunley out as long as possible.
The series starts tonight at 10 p.m. on ESPN2. Game two of the series will be Sunday at 5 p.m. on ESPN, and if necessary, game three will be played Sunday at 8 p.m. on ESPN2. You can hear the games called in Lexington by Dick Gabriel on 630-AM WLAP.