For five innings, Meagan Prince looked the part as Kentucky’s senior ace, holding No. 3 Oregon to just one run.
But an uncharacteristic sixth inning, when the Ducks scored three runs without a hit, chased Prince out of the NCAA super regional won 4-0 by the Ducks.
Friday’s loss puts the Cats, the No. 14 seed, on their heels if they want to return to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2014.
“I thought their team got a lot better as the game went on, and I think we got a lot tighter, to be honest with you,” Kentucky Coach Rachel Lawson said.
Oregon starter Megan Kleist limited Kentucky (39-18) to three hits, lowering her ERA to 1.16. Oregon Coach Mike White called Friday the sophomore’s best outing at Oregon.
Now the Cats must win the next two games in the best-of-three series if they want to advance to Oklahoma City. Game 2 is 7 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.
“We’re going to look at what we did wrong and what we did right,” Prince said, “and come out with that confidence tomorrow to show that we do deserve to be here.”
Prince, who started UK’s first two games of regional play last weekend, loaded the bases in the sixth inning by way of two walks sandwiched around a hit batter. The senior didn’t allow a run last weekend but surrendered four runs (three earned) on five hits against the Ducks.
Prince said it took the first two at-bats of the sixth to diagnosis her pitching motion and timing, which was off.
“Once I realized that the timing was my issue, and I had the timing back, then I was able to attack again,” Prince said.
But the Ducks made Prince pay, scoring two runs on groundouts. Then, Katie Reed committed an error — her ninth of the season — to allow another Oregon run. White called his team’s sixth-inning effort scrappy.
Kentucky’s Breanne Ray said Kleist’s dominance was the result of not sticking to the gameplan.
“We were a little selfish when it came to runners on scoring position, and we didn’t execute when we needed to,” Ray said.
The Ducks’ first run came in the third inning. Prince surrendered three hits and allowed Oregon’s Alexis Mack to score. UK avoided allowing a second run when Reed threw home to beat the Oregon runner.
Jenny Schaper (second inning) and Ray (fifth) both hit doubles for UK. Ray opened the fifth with a double down the right field line, but the Cats couldn’t capitalize. Ray was eventually thrown out at third after Rachael Metzger reached on a fielder’s choice.
Lawson said the Cats were too conservative offensively. Friday was Kleist’s 18th complete game of the season.
Prince threw 89 pitches and could very well get the ball again on Saturday with Kentucky’s postseason fate on the line.
“She kept us off balance,” White said Prince. “We came through with some big hits.”
In UK’s 2014 super regional appearance, the Cats still managed to advance despite dropping the opening game. Last year, the Ducks won Game 1 before dropping Games 2 and 3 to UCLA in the super regional round.
Lawson said the environment, with 2,423 fans in the stands, added to UK’s tightness on the road.
“The crowd, I think, had an effect on us,” Prince said. “We just kind of realized everything all at once and got real tight and tense instead of just being relaxed and playing our game.”
Kentucky at Oregon
What: Game 2 of NCAA Tournament best-of-three super-regional series
Where: Jane Sanders Stadium in Eugene, Ore.
When: 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
At stake: Series winner advances to College World Series next week in Oklahoma City