For the second year in a row, the University of Kentucky softball team's season has ended in the super-regional round of the NCAA Tournament at the hands of Oregon.
The Wildcats fell one win short of the program's second Women's College World Series, falling to the No. 1 overall-seeded Ducks 11-1 in the deciding game of the Eugene Super Regional late Saturday night.
Oregon swept the Cats 2-0 in the Eugene Super Regional last season, but No. 16-seeded UK stunned the Ducks 9-6 in Thursday's opener, giving the Cats two chances to get a series-clinching win with an offense that had scored 37 runs in four NCAA Tournament games.
But UK's batters couldn't solve Oregon ace Miranda Elish. The sophomore right-hander tossed a complete game and allowed just two hits and one unearned run as Oregon evened the series with a 6-1 win on Friday. Elish returned to the circle on Saturday and shut UK's offense down again, striking out seven and allowing four hits as Oregon routed the Cats in five innings, clinching one of eight berths in the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
The Ducks buried the Cats with a seven-run second inning that began with a lead-off home run to the delight of a capacity crowd of 2,522. After a pair of walks and an RBI-single, some questionable defense by the Cats helped Oregon load the bases on a bunt. Then DJ Sanders made the Cats pay immediately with a grand slam that put the Ducks ahead 6-0. Oregon (52-8) added three runs in the third inning and another in the fourth.
“The postseason always comes down to pitching and defense,” Kentucky Coach Rachel Lawson told the Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene. “I think we had a crucial defensive mistake that put one of the best home run hitters in the country up with nowhere to put her. That’s what good players do, they capitalize on their opportunities.”
Kentucky (35-21) avoided the shutout on senior Brooklin Hinz's solo homer in the top of the fourth, but the game ended via the mercy rule when UK failed to get within seven runs in the fifth inning.
“It was just nice to score some runs, give our pitcher a lot of cushion,” Oregon's Sanders told the Register-Guard. “This is probably the best thing that can happen to us as a team because we realize even during regionals we didn’t play as well as we should have or could have. So we were like, maybe this is the wake-up call that we need to come out and play like we should be.
“Really, the first game was probably the wake-up call.”
UK looks like a strong contender to make another deep postseason run next year. The Cats will graduate just three seniors: Hinz, Rachael Metzger and Erin Rethlake.
Metzger provided pop at the plate off the bench for much of the year while Hinz batted .349 and was the regular starter in center field. Rethlake will be a big loss in the circle. The left-hander went 11-5 on the year with a 3.24 ERA and also logged a lot of innings at first base.
Grace Baalman should help ease the sting of losing Rethlake. In her freshman campaign, Baalman went 14-9 with a 2.63 ERA.
Oregon will open play in the Women's College World Series on Thursday.
The Ducks will be joined in Oklahoma City by fellow Pac-12 Conference schools Arizona State, Washington and UCLA. The field also includes Florida and Georgia of the Southeastern Conference, Oklahoma from the Big 12 and Florida State from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“As they head out to Oklahoma City, if they could take these fans with them I think it would be really cool,” Lawson told the Register-Guard about Oregon. “They’re well-suited to make a run at the national championship.”