How good was the pitching duel between Kentucky and Illinois in the NCAA softball tournament Saturday? So good it moved UK Coach Rachel Lawson to praise … the home plate umpire.
“Am I supposed to say the umpire did a good job?” Lawson joked after UK beat Illinois 1-0. “Am I ever supposed to say (that)? I might get fined for that.”
But Lawson saluted Cody Little, who called balls and strikes.
“I thought the (strike) zone was very consistent,” she said. “I thought it was easy to work with. Because of that, I thought both people did a great job shutting down the offense.”
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Megan Prince out-performed her counterpart in the pitching duel to send Kentucky to Sunday’s regional finals. UK will play Illinois, which advanced out the losers’ bracket with a win against Marshall. The Illini must beat Kentucky twice Sunday to advance to the super regional.
Prince, a senior from Martin, Tenn., limited Illinois to three singles in extending her streak of scoreless innings in the regional to 13.
“I think it was one of my better performances,” she said. “I felt sharp. I felt loose on the mound. And I felt confidence in what I was throwing.”
Prince, who improved her record this season to 21-7 and lowered her earned run average to 1.84, retired the final 14 batters she faced.
“I think once the hitters went through the order, we kind of had a better idea of how to attack,” she said. “I had a better idea of where I needed to place the ball.”
Lawson credited unpredictability. The UK coach said Prince had to vary her pitching patterns to keep a running team like Illinois off balance and off the bases.
“You can tell from scouting them that they learn from at-bat to at-bat,” Lawson said. “So we wanted to make sure they didn’t have two at-bats alike. Your pitcher has to be awesome. … We didn’t want to get predictable from batter to batter either. So it was just like putting her on random, and shuffle and just seeing what happened. I thought she was great.”
Illinois, 38-19, had an alternative view of the game. Prince was not unpredictable.
“She seemed predictable to me,” said lead-off hitter Kiana Sherlund, who had two of the Illini’s three singles.
Illinois Coach Tyra Perry said her team’s offensive woes were, in part, self-inflicted.
“We kept kind of getting ourselves out … ,” she said. “Because we kept … swinging at balls. Anyone could have been effective against a team that doesn’t swing at strikes.”
Illinois pitcher Breanna Wonderly nearly matched Prince pitch for pitch. Wonderly, who pitched 12 innings — and threw 173 pitches — in a 3-2 victory over Marshall on Friday, also gave up only three singles.
Her downfall came in the fourth inning and certainly had an element of self-infliction.
Wonderly walked the lead-off hitter. Then after a sacrifice bunt, she hit the next two batters to load the bases. Breanne Ray drove in the game’s only run with a sacrifice fly.
“I just think Bre was competing,” Perry said of Wonderly’s performance. “And, you know, softball is softball. And sometimes those things happen. She pitched 12 innings (Friday), and that was a tough part of the (UK) lineup. And I believe she did a great job.”
Wonderly was philosophical. “It’s just how the cookie crumbles, I guess,” she said.
Lawson credited Prince’s pitching and solid defense behind the pitcher for Kentucky’s victory. The offense? The UK coach joked about not having to make many decisions.
Freshman second baseman Alex Martens said the obvious: UK wants to score.
“We always like to get more than one run,” she said. “But it did the job today.”
Illinois at Kentucky
Noon Sunday (TV TBA)