Kentucky softball’s Erin Rethlake, who’d never hit better than .123 and never pitched more than 51 innings in occasional appearances over her first two years, has reinvented her batting approach, her mindset and her career this season.
Now hitting .333 and having a breakout start for the No. 17 Cats, Rethlake brought in the go-ahead run Friday night at John Cropp Stadium as UK held on for a 2-1 win over No. 22 Arkansas in their series opener.
Her chopper back to the shortstop in the third inning gave Bailey Vick plenty of time to get home for the game’s final run.
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“Bailey Vick is so fast that I knew I just had to put it on the ground and give her time to score,” Rethlake said. “It didn’t matter what I did as long as we got Bailey in.”
Rethlake, a left-hander, tried a slap-hitting approach in the second game of the season and saw immediate success.
“I always power hit and then when I’d get enough swings in the cage, I just say ‘all right, let’s just do this (slap) for fun,’” the junior said. “The last five swings of every day would just be joking around. (My teammates) were like, ‘well, do it in a game!’”
Rethlake, who also has five pitching starts, has been doing all this after offseason surgery to repair an ulnar nerve in her throwing arm. Never more than an occasional starter in the field or on the stripe in her first two seasons, Rethlake plays most of her games at first base around her pitching opportunities, where she has gone 5-0 with a team-leading 0.90 ERA in nine appearances.
She credits the surgery for giving her perspective on the game.
“It gave me time away from softball and I had to sit and watch the girls train,” she said. “And the stuff that I always dreaded — the 6 a.m. workouts — I missed so much. Getting the game taken away from me made me realize how much I loved it again.”
In her first two years, Rethlake admits she pressed too much.
“I struggled because Coach (Rachel) Lawson kept giving me opportunities and kept giving me every chance to succeed and, coming in once every game or every other game, it was really hard for me to get comfortable,” Rethlake said. “And then the more I wasn’t succeeding, the more frustrated I got.”
Her teammates have noticed the change this season and not just in her production.
“I joke around with her and I tell her that her surgery was a blessing in disguise,” said pitcher Meagan Prince, who pitched a complete game for the win Friday. “She looks like she wants to be there. She’s fought hard to come back and (feels) like she deserves to be here. And she does.”
Lawson credited Rethlake’s increased confidence on her maturing as a player and the hard work she put in during the offseason on her rehab. She stayed on campus during Christmas break to work her arm back to full strength.
“She really had to learn the mental side of the game,” Lawson said. “And when she had her surgery, while that’s never a good thing, she spent all fall watching the team and she was able to take an outsider’s perspective, … and I think she really just thought things through. …
“She’s pretty much reinvented her career.”
With the Cats entering the bulk of the SEC season, Lawson expects to continue to use Rethlake as a pitcher and now knows she’s a reliable threat at the plate.
“Erin’s been great. She’s been great on the mound. Defensively, she’s just been incredible, and to be able to do what she’s doing offensively … really just shows you how competitive she is. … It’s been a big plus for our team this year.”
No. 22 Arkansas at No. 17 Kentucky
When: 3 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. Sunday
Online: SEC Network Plus