During a 4-3 victory over Mississippi State in last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament, Kentucky's Kelsey Nunley hit eight batters with pitches.
Surely, UK Coach Rachel Lawson wondered several times in the game if she should change pitchers because her ace (a) didn't have it that day, (b) was unnerved, (c) was injured, either physically or emotionally.
"No, it never crossed my mind," Lawson said matter-of-factly this week. "... I knew she'd fight back. She's been doing it two years now. I knew she'd end up on the winning end of it."
Nunley, who has won 24 games this season (and 51 in her two college seasons), will lead Kentucky in this weekend's NCAA Tournament regional at John Cropp Stadium.
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In Friday's first round, Kentucky (44-15) plays Ohio (32-24), which has its own ace in Savannah Jo Dorsey, whose four complete-game victories in the Mid-American Conference Tournament included three shutouts and a perfect game.
James Madison (44-13) plays DePaul (41-9) in Friday's first game.
As in baseball, pitching is paramount in softball. Maybe more so. "If you have one ace, it's not like the other team can game plan and beat you up and get to your middle relievers," Lawson said. "One pitcher can throw the entire game and can throw multiple games."
That's the role Nunley fills for Kentucky and Dorsey for Ohio. Nunley relies on command of several pitches (the kind of control that escaped her at times against Mississippi State), and a constant, something Lawson called a "country-tough" approach.
"She doesn't back down," the UK coach said. "It doesn't matter if you are the top hitter in the country or somebody hitting No. 8 on a team who isn't that strong. She doesn't back down from anybody. She really keeps a great focus. She really attacks batters."
Lawson cited another example of Nunley's steely resolve from this season. The situation was a tight game against Tennessee, seventh inning, bases loaded, two outs, 3-2 count on the batter with the SEC's best player on deck.
"She was able to come up with the change-up" to get an out, Lawson said. "That's pretty tough. If you're able to do that, I think you can do a lot of things.
"I think it's the guttiest pitch I saw all year."
Nunley, a sophomore from quaint-sounding Soddy Daisy, Tenn., is not immune to discouragement. After the Mississippi State game, she called her mother and heard consoling words.
"She said, 'Man, you're the luckiest girl on the Earth right now because there's just not that many games, not many pitchers that get away with hitting eight batters and win the game,'" Nunley recalled.
When asked how good it felt to hear her mother's look-at-the-bright-side observation, Nunley smiled and said, "My parents always try to be positive even though I can tell they're kind of faking it around me."
Nunley, whose father gave her several nicknames with "Skeeter" the one that stuck, has long since grown familiar with the onus placed on a softball pitcher. She began pitching at age 9.
"Ever since then, every summer ball team I've played on I've kind of had to carry them," she said.
In high school, she pitched three-fourths of the games, Nunley said.
She shrugged at her accomplishments so far at Kentucky. Last season she became the first UK pitcher to win 20 games (27-11). Her 51 career victories rank third in program history. The victories are fulfilling only as a means toward an end, she said. "We just want to make it to the World Series."
Dorsey went into the MAC Tournament with a metaphorical chip on her shoulder. She was not happy about being named second-team All-MAC. No doubt, the I'll-show-you attitude contributed to the four complete-game victories in the conference tournament. One of the three straight shutouts included a 13-inning game.
Dorsey downplayed the notion that she felt snubbed, although she added, "I'm not a fan of second place in anything."
Dorsey's mother, Rona, was a first-team All-MAC pitcher for Ohio in 1984. Her career earned-run average of 1.65 ranks third in school history.
So Dorsey, the daughter, could turn to her mother for expert advice. The family converted its barn into a batting/pitching cage. A younger sister will join the Ohio team next season as a freshman outfielder.
The Kentucky coach likened Dorsey, the daughter, to Georgia sophomore Chelsea Wilkinson, who this month was twice named the Louisville Slugger/NFCA Division I National Player of the Week.
Wilkinson beat Kentucky three times, striking out 27 batters and giving up 10 hits in 21 innings.
"It's not going to be a cake walk, that's for sure," Lawson said of facing Dorsey. "We'll have to battle every pitch."