Safety-first thinkers and/or Kentucky fans had to be grateful Saturday that ace pitcher Kelsey Nunley wears a mask. Nunley was when James Madison's Caitlin Sandy lined a softball off her mask in the sixth inning.
"That was really shocking," said Nunley, who hadn't been hit since donning a mask after a ball broke her nose when she was 8.
It was a day for attention-getting moments at sun-splashed John Cropp Stadium. Kentucky attributed its 2-1 victory over James Madison to what Coach Rachel Lawson called a "slap in the face."
She meant that figuratively, Lawson said with a chuckle while playfully noting the litigious possibilities attached to a coach literally slapping a player's face.
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Kentucky, which advanced to Sunday's championship game of this NCAA Tournament regional, did not get a hit nor a ball to the outfield in the first four innings.
"I thought we were real quiet, tentative at bat," Lawson said.
UK third baseman Nikki Sagermann saluted James Madison pitcher Jailyn Ford, who came into the game having struck out 226 and walked only 40 in 2221⁄3 innings.
"She was really good getting ahead in the count and then making us chase," Sagermann said.
Lawson said she considered Kentucky's at-bats the first time through the lineup "terrible." The second time through the lineup? "Just a little bit better than awful," the UK coach said.
It was about then that Lawson tried to get her team's attention.
"As a coach, I'm not a big yeller," she said. "But I believe there are times you have to make them more scared of you than the situation in front of them. At times, you have to distract athletes and help them get out of their own way."
Lawson said she vented her corrections at Sagermann and catcher Griffin Joiner because those players respond to stern talk.
"I'm not that frightening at all," the UK coach said. "I'm very pointed and direct. When I do (yell), it means something. ... It's that slap across the face you need to wake up and do what you need to do."
With one exception, Nunley matched the James Madison pitcher pitch for pitch.
Sandy hit a solo home run in the second inning over the 12-foot outfield fence near the 220-foot sign in straight-away center field.
"Drop ball in ... ," Nunley said. "She just crushed it."
That run seemed to grow in significance as Ford, a sophomore left-hander, set down Kentucky, at one point retiring 13 straight batters.
Emily Gaines broke the spell simply by flying out to center field to start the fifth inning, the first ball Kentucky got out of the infield.
"All right, we can hit her," Sagermann said of the message Gaines' flyout delivered. "Gaines has sparked us all year. That kind of got everybody going. Everybody got fired up and the rest of the people in the lineup started battling better in their at-bats."
Kentucky (46-15) threatened in the fifth inning, then broke through in the sixth. Sylver Samuel singled to center and scored on Sagermann's double to the right-center gap. Joiner lined a single to left field to score Sagermann with the go-ahead run.
Nunley, who improved to 26-7, gave up only four singles after Sandy's home run. Three were infield hits, which included Sandy's liner off the mask.
"We knew the last time (through the lineup) we had to do it then," Joiner said of UK's late, but not too late, rally. "That was the only time that mattered."
DePaul advances to finals
DePaul advanced out of the losers' bracket to Sunday's championship game (or games) by beating Ohio 5-1 and James Madison 4-3 on Saturday.
Kirsten Verdun, a 5-foot-9 senior left-hander, pitched both games for DePaul. She threw 181 pitches, which increased her three-game regional total to 311.
When asked about possibly pitching in two more games on Sunday, Verdun said, "I'm prepared. ... I should be OK."
DePaul Coach Eugene Lenti downplayed the notion of fatigue being a factor for Verdun, who was the Big East Pitcher of the Year and Most Outstanding Player in the conference tournament.
"I think it was a light workload for her," he said. "Only 87 pitches (against James Madison). ... We've been resting her a lot.
DePaul's victory over Ohio included a historical footnote.
A run in the seventh inning reduced Ohio's final margin of defeat to 5-1. But the run was significant. It was the first run Ohio had ever scored in an NCAA Tournament regional in program history.
"The senior class motto was leave a legacy," Coach Jodi Hernanek said. "They definitely did that."