A season laden with high expectations got off to a rough start for the University of Kentucky softball team on Friday night.
The Wildcats dropped a pair of nail biters in their season-opening double header at the Houston Invitational in Texas, falling to Illinois in extra innings, 6-5, then surrendering the lead late in a 4-3 loss to Houston.
Kentucky, ranked No. 13 in the USA Today preseason coaches poll, returns eight starters to a lineup that finished one game shy of last year’s College World Series.
In Friday’s first game, UK fell behind Illinois 3-0 after surrendering one run apiece in the third, fourth and fifth innings. Then, Abbey Cheek got the Cats back in the game by doing what she’s done her whole career.
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Cheek connected for a 2-run homer to left field, pulling UK within 3-2 in the bottom of the fifth. The senior, who led the Cats in home runs each of the last two years, also drew three walks against the Illini.
Kelsee Henson sent the game to extra innings with an RBI ground out in the bottom of the seventh, scoring Jenny Schaper from third to tie the game, 3-3.
The Houston Invitational uses the International tiebreak rule in extra-inning games, which means each team begins its half-inning with a runner on second and no outs. Illinois took advantage with back-to-back home runs to go up 6-3. UK’s Sarah Rainwater pulled the Cats within a run with her first career homer in the bottom of the eighth, but the tying run was stranded at second.
In game two against Houston, Katie Reed led off the third inning with a double and scored on Cheek’s single to give the Cats the lead, then Schaper belted a 2-run homer in the top of the fifth to put UK up 3-1. Houston led off the bottom of the sixth with back-to-back singles and tied the game when both runners came home on a throwing error, then plated the game-winning run on a single up the middle.
Autumn Humes was solid in the circle against Houston despite getting saddled with the loss. The junior pitched a complete game, striking out seven and allowing just one earned run. Grace Baalman took the loss against Illinois, allowing nine hits and three earned runs in seven innings.