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Big bats and hustle power Kentucky to victory in NCAA softball opener

Photo slideshow: Kentucky defeats Toledo in NCAA Regional

The Kentucky Wildcats softball team defeated the Toledo Rockets 7-2 in their NCAA Softball Lexington Regional game Friday at John Cropp Stadium.
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The Kentucky Wildcats softball team defeated the Toledo Rockets 7-2 in their NCAA Softball Lexington Regional game Friday at John Cropp Stadium.

Down 2-0 in the bottom of the first, Kentucky’s Abbey Cheek showed emphatically that Kentucky would not be ripe for an upset Friday in the NCAA Softball Lexington Regional at John Cropp Stadium.

In her first at-bat, Cheek smashed a two-run double to left center and took advantage of a slight mishandle of the ball on the track by Toledo’s Amy Ill, hustling into third with a slide that barely avoided the tag.

“Those kind of things are what gives the team energy,” UK Coach Rachel Lawson said after the Cats’ 7-2 win over the Rockets. “Everyone expects Abbey to get a hit. Ho-hum. But when she came and she had that great slide … It was a lot of fun to watch. And those kind of momentum-building plays are what the postseason is about.”

In the bottom of the fifth, Alex Martens’ two-run homer off the scoreboard in left gave UK some breathing room and helped the Cats advance in the winner’s bracket of this weekend’s round of the tournament. Kentucky (34-22) will take on Virginia Tech (46-9) at noon Saturday.

Cheek’s game-tying double scored Jenny Schaper and Katie Reed, who walked and got hit by a pitch, respectively, to open UK’s half of the inning.

A batter later, Kayla Kowalik walked, and Kentucky continued to increase the pressure with its relentless hustle. As Kowalik attempted a steal of second with one out, Cheek broke for home and scored. Toledo’s uncertainty about what to do about Cheek kept Kowalik alive in the rundown and she continued to avoid attempts to put her out until one of Toledo’s fielders dropped the ball allowing her to slide safely into second.

Kowalik scored on a Lauren Johnson single to complete UK’s rally to the lead, now up 4-2 in the first after a shaky start by UK’s Autumn Humes.

“We’re kind of an answer-back team,” said Johnson, who went 3-for-3 at the plate. “All of us came in the dugout and said, ‘It’s two runs.’ Easily, every game this year, we’ve scored a lot of runs. … When Jenny (Schaper) got on base, we knew we were going to get on a roll.”

In the top half of the first, Toledo took advantage of Humes’ tendency to try to get ahead of hitters with strikes. After the first two batters were retired, the next five jumped on Humes’ early offerings. Pinch-runner Brianna Robeson scored on Bekah Yenrick’s hit to right field. Kaitlyn Bergman scored on Morgan Paaverud’s shot to center.

Toledo kept threatening, but Humes got out of jams in the fourth and fifth innings thanks to double plays.

“We gave them all we had,” said Toledo Coach Joe Abraham, whose Rockets stunned in the Mid-American Conference Tournament with five straight wins for a title as a No. 7 seed last week. “We had eight of our nine hitters get a hit. We played well. And we showed we could play with this type of team.”

For Humes (14-10), overcoming the early struggles were another step in her maturation process after coming to Kentucky as a transfer last season.

“Last year as my first year in the SEC, I had a really bad habit of just letting things get out of control and out of my hands,” said Humes, who allowed two runs on seven hits and had three strikeouts. “One thing I’ve learned this year when things are starting to go south, I learned to just take a breath and figure out what needs to be done in that moment, in that pitch to get the job done.”

Meghan Schorman came on in relief for UK in the sixth to close out the victory. Erin Hunt pitched six innings for Toledo, allowing seven runs on eight hits and three walks. She got four strikeouts.

Martens, the Cats’ RBI leader, got numbers 69 and 70 with her 12th homer of the year, a blast launched into the scoreboard outside the left-field wall in the fifth inning. It also scored pinch-runner Jaci Babbs.

Virginia Tech, the Cats’ next opponent, was 6-2 winner over Illinois in Friday’s first game.


Lexington Regional

Noon: Virginia Tech vs. Kentucky

2:30 p.m.: Toledo vs. Illinois

5 p.m.: Loser of first game vs. winner of second game