Just like that — yes, you could say in "quicksylver" fashion — Kentucky was on its way to next weekend's NCAA Tournament super regional.
Sylver Samuel's inside-the-park ground-ball home run got UK's 10-1 victory over DePaul started Sunday. By the time she circled the bases, Kentucky had a lead and a sense of inevitable victory.
"The single moment the game was won," UK Coach Rachel Lawson said.
Kentucky, which will play a best two-of-three at UCLA in the super regional, erased any doubt about advancement with a six-run second inning. All the runs were unearned because DePaul second baseman Brittany Boesel dropped a pop up that would have been the third out in a one-two-three inning.
"Ten out of 10 times, Brittany catches that ball," said DePaul Coach Eugene Lenti, who only the day before lauded her "gold glove" play. "Then fate steps in."
UK's next batter hit a routine grounder that bounced off the third base bag. After a walk, shortstop Christian Stokes cleared the bases with a double high off the left field fence and Kentucky (47-16) could start thinking about UCLA.
"That is softball Mecca," Lawson said of playing against the Bruins.
Samuel then "tripled" in Stokes, with quote marks necessary because DePaul continued to so dramatically shift its defense to create the possibility of a line-drive single to left resulting in a three-base hit.
"She's definitely got to be the fastest kid in the SEC," Lenti said of Samuel and his team's radical shift. "You're preparing for what's mostly going to happen. That's Major League Baseball all the way down to Little League."
Samuel, a slap-hitting sophomore who Lawson said can get from home to first in less than 2.6 seconds, had never hit a home run in college. Because DePaul's outfielders were no more than 10 yards from the infield dirt, her grounder up the middle rolled to the fence.
"I saw people still running (for the ball) when I was going to second," she said.
As Samuel neared third, she eyed the third-base coach.
"She was waving me, so I just went for it," Samuel said.
Lawson suggested the home run — UK's 65th of the season, which tied a school record — created a ripple effect of positivity. Besides shifting momentum to Kentucky, it helped pitcher Kelsey Nunley.
"Changed Nunley's mindset," the UK coach said. "It made her relax. I know she was fatigued both physically and mentally."
Nunley, whose 27th victory equaled her own single-season school record, threw 451 pitches in the regional tournament. That seemed a light load compared to DePaul's Kirsten Verdun, who threw 530 (the final 400 with DePaul in an elimination game).
"Did I feel tired? Yes," Verdun said. "Was I concerned? No. ... I was going to throw till my arm fell off, basically."
Verdun also had four hits in seven at-bats as DePaul's leadoff hitter.
"That's All-American right there," the DePaul coach said. "I don't think there's a better pitcher-slash-hitter than Kirsten in the country."
But Lawson noted that the workload took a toll. The power pitches slowed enough to lessen the effectiveness of Verdun's changeup.
DePaul forced a second — and deciding — game by beating Kentucky 2-1 earlier in the afternoon.
It took 10 innings with Nunley and Verdun throwing a combined 320 pitches.
Verdun won it with a drive to the center-field fence that eluded Samuel. But even if UK's center fielder had caught it, the runner on third would have tagged up and easily scored.
Hannah Penna opened DePaul's 10th by drawing her first walk of the season. With one out, she got to third when UK third baseman Nikki Sagermann's throw on a routine grounder led first baseman Lauren Cumbess into the baseline. The collision of batter Micah Fitzgerald and Cumbess resulted in the ball rolling into shallow right field.
Verdun, who threw 166 pitches, limited Kentucky to two hits. Cumbess doubled off the center fielder's glove to drive in a fourth-inning run. UK's only other hit was an infield chopper that Samuel beat out in the eighth.
Ultimately Samuel's speed made the difference.
"I don't know if she's as fast as those people across the way at the SEC track meet," Lawson said of Samuel, "but she's pretty fast."
DePaul 2, Kentucky 1 (10)
Kentucky... 000 100 000 0—1 2 1
DePaul... 000 100 000 1 —2 5 0
Nunley and Joiner. Verdun and Bonezek. 2B — Braden (DePaul). Cumbess (UK). Christensen (DePaul). WP—Verdun (33-6). LP—Nunley (26-8).
Kentucky 10, DePaul 1
DePaul... 001 00— 1 5 3
Kentucky... 163 0x—10 8 1
Verdun, Penna (3), Connolly (4) and Bonezek, Gardner (4). Nunley and Joiner. 2B — Verdun 2 (DePaul). Stokes (UK), Joiner (UK), Braden (DePaul). 3B — Samuel (UK). HR — Samuel (UK). WP — Nunley (27-8). LP — Verdun (33-7).