Coach Rachel Lawson had used the word fold to describe Kentucky's difficult-to-accept 8-0 loss to Louisville 24 hours earlier. So UK's softball team wanted to regain a bit of self-respect against Western Kentucky on Wednesday night.
To feel good again, Kentucky had to beat one of the nation's best pitchers in full command of her powers to snuff out an opponent's will.
Fortunately, UK could call on Kelsey Nunley in this high-stakes, tiny-margin-of-error showdown.
"Somebody like Kelsey is the perfect person for this kind of situation," Lawson said.
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In a game neither team and neither pitcher deserved to lose, Kentucky and Nunley won 1-0. An unearned run in the bottom of the ninth inning gave her a 69th career victory, a program record for Kentucky.
Nunley saluted her counterpart, Western Kentucky's Miranda Kramer. Going into the game as the NCAA's active leader in strikeouts with 1,052, Kramer fanned 18 batters. That set a record for a UK opponent.
But in a cruel twist of fate, Kentucky scored the game's only run when Kramer mishandled a comebacker, then rushed a flip that sailed well over the first baseman's glove. That enabled Christian Stokes to score.
"I guess I just lost my maturity there for a minute and kind of panicked," Kramer said.
It was about the only mistake she made. Kramer, a left-hander who began her motion by turning toward first base, struck out 18 hitters through the first seven innings. Four times she struck out the side. The top six hitters in UK's order put the ball in play once through the first seven innings.
"She is exceptional on the mound," WKU Coach Amy Tudor said. "It stinks to lose that way. But we have to score runs. If we're going to be successful, we have to figure out how to hit a high-caliber pitcher like Nunley."
Kramer, who struck out 19 in a no-hitter against Troy in the season's opening week, did not give up a hit until pinch-hitter Brooklin Hinz beat out a grounder to shortstop leading off the eighth inning.
"It is what it is," Kramer said of her record strikeout total for a pitcher against Kentucky. "We still took the loss. I take it with a grain of salt. It's a great thing to have, I guess. But I'd rather have it with a 'W.'"
Western, 27-9, had six hits against Nunley. A controversial umpiring decision — actually two decisions — prevented the Hilltoppers from scoring in the fifth. Brooke Holloway got into scoring position with a two-out double to the center field fence. The next hitter, Larissa Franklin, ground a single up the middle.
Holloway headed for third and presumably on toward the plate. UK's shortstop, Stokes, moved toward second base to try to field Franklin's grounder. When the two collided, third base umpire Phil Freels signalled interference on Stokes. But home plate umpire Kevin Gramig overruled Freels. Gramig considered Stokes capable of making a play on the ball, thus nullifying interference, Lawson said. The result of the play stood: UK center fielder Sylver Samuel threw out Holloway on a close play at the plate.
Not surprisingly, Tudor saw it differently.
"It's hard to play on the road," the Western coach said in making her point without castigating anyone. "They made the call. We had chances to win besides that part. But when you play somebody like Nunley, you need a couple breaks to go your way."
Thereafter, Nunley gave up only one infield hit and struck out six in the final four innings.
"I don't think you'll find anybody to command the zone better than she does," Lawson said of Nunley. "I don't think you'll find anybody more battle-tested than she is. She's been doing this for us the last three years."
Last season, Nunley pitched Kentucky to its first appearance in the College World Series.