After the University of Kentucky softball team dominated the Lexington Regional last weekend, outscoring its opponents 28-1 in going 3-0 to advance in the NCAA Tournament, the Cats expressed confidence they could bring that red-hot offense with them across the country for their matchup with No. 1 overall seed Oregon in the Eugene Super Regional.
Easier said than done, considering the Ducks boast arguably the nation's best pitching staff.
But No. 16 overall seed Kentucky backed up words with action on Thursday night. The Cats jumped on the Ducks early and never let up, gutting out a dramatic 9-6 win in the opener of the best-of-three series. Now, UK is one win away from reaching the program's second Women's College World Series (2014).
Abbey Cheek led the barrage, blasting a pair of home runs. Her two-out, three-run shot in the top of the fourth gave the Cats a 7-3 lead and some much-needed breathing room after the Ducks trimmed a four-run lead down to one. Her two-run blast put the Cat ahead 9-5 in the top of the sixth.
Cheek's five RBI certainly stand out in the box score, but just as important might have been her first at-bat of the night. After Katie Reed singled in the top of the first, Cheek outdueled Oregon star pitcher Megan Kleist to draw a nine-pitch walk. That set up UK's first salvo of the night, a three-run home run by Alex Martens.
Katie Reed accounted for UK's other run with a two-out RBI single in the top of the second. The junior shortstop went 3-for-4 on the night. Leadoff batter Jenny Schaper went 2-for-5.
Kentucky's' success at the plate was unprecedented among Oregon's opponents this season. Heading into Thursday's game, the Ducks had gone 30 straight innings without allowing a run and had not lost a game all year in which they scored at least four times. The Cats' nine runs are the most Oregon has given up in a single game this season, and before Thursday no Ducks starting pitcher had allowed more than three earned runs in a game; UK scored six against Kleist.
The offensive onslaught helped the Cats overcome a pair of Oregon runs that never should have scored. In the bottom of the fourth the Ducks drew within 7-5 when a runner came home on a wild pitch, with the home plate umpire apparently ruling Schaper's tag never landed. Schaper was visibly upset with the call, and replays seemed to show that she clearly tagged the runner.
In a bizarre sequence to begin the bottom of the sixth, Oregon leadoff batter Haley Cruse grounded out, but was given a second at-bat when it was ruled UK Coach Rachel Lawson made a substitution error. Cruse took advantage with a single then scored on a double.
But UK freshman Autmn Humes retired the next six batters to seal the win. One down, one to go for the Cats. Game 2 is scheduled for 11 p.m. Friday night and will be televised on ESPN2. If UK wins, it's on to Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series. If the Ducks win, a series-deciding Game 3 will be played on Saturday at 9 p.m. on ESPN.