Led by senior pitcher Kelsey Nunley, the 12th-ranked Kentucky softball team capped an historic regular season in fitting fashion on Mother’s Day.
Nunley, who has been dominant all year long, not only was lights-out from the pitching circle, she came up big at the plate in the finale against Mississippi State. Nunley struck out eight batters and slapped a two-run single in the bottom of the sixth inning to power Kentucky past the Bulldogs 4-0, giving the Wildcats a school-record 17 Southeastern Conference wins and a best-ever overall record of 43-11.
“(Nunley) was awesome today,” UK Coach Rachel Lawson said. “She was awesome on the mound and she was awesome when she came up to bat, so it was a fitting day for her last regular-season game on her field.”
Nunley gave up a leadoff single to Loryn Nichols to start the game, but quickly found her footing, retiring the next three batters. Mississippi State scattered four more hits on the day, but Nunley never allowed a runner past second base.
“I felt a little tight in the beginning, but as the game went on I got loose pretty quickly,” she said. “A little bit of adrenaline kicked in and that’s something that I depend on.”
Kentucky stranded runners in scoring position in the first, second and fourth innings but finally broke the stalemate when Christian Stokes tapped a bases-loaded grounder to third and Abbey Cheek slid into home just ahead of the throw. Then Nunley broke the game open with a shot right back at relief pitcher Holly Ward that deflected off her glove and into right field, bringing home Jenny Schaper and Ansley Smith.
“I was hoping we were gonna break through because we’d gotten people on before and we just couldn’t get that hit,” said Nunley. “But after Christian got that hit it kind of took the pressure off me and I was like, ‘You know what, let’s just have some fun.’”
Stokes scored the Cats’ final run when Ward mishandled a grounder by Katie Reed. Nunley sat the Bulldogs down in order in the top of the seventh inning, striking out the last two batters to run her record to 20-5 on the year.
Nunley also played the hero at the plate in Friday’s series-opening 3-2 win over the Bulldogs. She had an RBI single to force extra innings, then her sacrifice bunt in the ninth moved Jenny Schaper to third, allowing her to score the winning run on a wild pitch. Lawson said Nunley has proven her value at the plate and expects to keep her in the lineup throughout the Cats’ postseason run.
“The thing that would take her out of the lineup is just from a fatigue standpoint, but as far as a competitor and an athlete in the box you can’t have anybody any mentally tougher than Kelsey,” Lawson said.
The three-game sweep of the Bulldogs coupled with Georgia’s 9-5 win at Alabama earned the Wildcats the No. 2 seed and a bye in the SEC Tournament, which begins Wednesday in Starkville, Miss. Kentucky will play the LSU-Texas A&M winner on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. The Wildcats swept LSU in three regular-season matchups, shutting out the Tigers in each game. UK didn’t play the Aggies in the regular season.
Lawson said the grueling league schedule UK had to navigate will go a long way toward helping the team reach the College World series for the second time in program history (2014).
“This is by far top to bottom the toughest league in the country,” she said. “The fact that we were able to win so many series and so many games against awesome opponents at their field says a lot about how far this program has come,” she said. “We don’t wanna take anything for granted but we have goals and we want to get to the College World Series.”
SEC Tournament in Starkville, Miss.
Kentucky vs. LSU-Texas A&M winner
When: 2:30 p.m. EDT Thursday
TV: SEC Network