After navigating a tough stretch that saw it lose five of six games and two straight Southeastern Conference series, the Kentucky softball team on Saturday put itself in position to do something it hasn’t done in six years — win a series against Florida.
Meagan Prince was lights-out on the mound and Katie Reed was dialed in at the plate as No. 21 Kentucky knocked off No. 3 Florida 5-1 at John Cropp Stadium in front of a sellout crowd, evening the series against the Gators. The four-run disparity was Florida’s largest margin of defeat since a 5-1 loss to Alabama in 2015.
Florida shut out the Cats 4-0 in Friday’s series opener. On Saturday, Prince turned the tables, allowing just two hits and striking out eight in her 10th complete game of the season. It was just the Gators’ third loss of the year.
“We had absolutely nothing to lose,” Prince said. “Florida’s a nationally ranked team, they’ve been to the College World Series and won it twice; this was huge for our confidence and it’ll really help us with momentum on the way to the postseason.”
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Florida (38-3, 15-2 SEC) boasts arguably the nation’s best pitching staff with three hurlers who rank in the top 10 in ERA. Saturday’s starter, Delanie Gourley, went into the game with a 0.79 ERA. Kentucky (26-11, 6-7 SEC) belted out eight hits against the senior lefty and slammed the door with two-run innings in the fifth and sixth, punctuated by Reed’s two-run line-drive to left field.
Batting leadoff, Reed went 3-for-4 and scored two runs. The sophomore shortstop raised her batting average to a team-best .354. She said patience is the key to attacking a pitching staff as solid as Florida’s.
“I was really just trying to stay calm at the plate,” she said. “I was looking to hit her change up, and my first hit I didn’t really square up on it, but on the last at-bat I was still trying to sit on it and I did a good job.”
UK Coach Rachel Lawson didn’t downplay the significance of Saturday’s win.
“We went through a rough patch and we’re slowly getting better and better, and anytime you can put a signature win on it, it really just validates all the hard work that our team’s been putting in,” she said. “When you go through tough stretches in the SEC, it’s such a grind that sometimes you can lose a little confidence and wonder if you’re doing things the right way. So when you have an opponent like Florida come in and you can execute … it gives you that push to keep going because you see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Kentucky took a 1-0 lead in the first inning as Reed led off with a single, then eventually scored on an error when Florida’s shortstop couldn’t handle Abbey Cheek’s hard grounder. Both of the Gators’ hits came in the second inning, including an RBI single by Justine McLean that tied the game.
The Cats retook the lead in the fifth as Erin Rethlake led off with a single to left field, stole second, then took third on Reed’s bunt single before scoring on a wild pitch, sliding into home just ahead of the catcher’s throw. Reed scored on Jenny Schaper’s opposite-field slap to right for a 3-1 UK lead, and Prince was ready to finish things off.
“It doesn’t sound like it’s much, but having the two run (lead) instead of just one helps you relax as a pitcher, and you’re a little more lenient with what you throw and where you hit your spots, so it helped a lot,” she said.
UK’s ace proceeded to retire Florida’s final six batters in order, including back-to-back strikeouts to end the sixth inning.
Sunday’s rubber match is scheduled for 1 p.m. at John Cropp Stadium. With a win, the Cats would take a series from Florida for the first time since 2011.
Florida at Kentucky
When: 1 p.m.