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UK softball’s perceived weakness was its strength Saturday in NCAA Regional win

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.

Heading into this weekend’s NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional, it was clear that the University of Kentucky softball team had the kind of offense that could pile up runs on pretty much any opponent: The Wildcats’ average of 6.45 runs per game came in ranked 11th in Division I this season.

Less clear was whether or not UK’s pitching, which has been far less stingy than in recent years, could hold up well enough for the Cats to make a run at the program’s second College World Series appearance.

If Saturday was any indication, at least one Wildcats pitcher has hit her stride at the perfect time. Sophomore Grace Baalman was steady in the circle, tossing a complete game to lead UK to an 8-1 victory over Virginia Tech, putting the Cats in strong position to advance to their third straight NCAA Super Regional.

“Grace did a great job on the mound. When we had people on base she did a nice job of coming up with some quality pitches, and then our defense again held strong,” UK Coach Rachel Lawson said. “Grace is an artist, so you really don’t know what you’re going to get from day to day.”

What the Cats got from Baalman on Saturday was a big-time performance in a marquee matchup. Her heroics were especially impressive given the caliber of opponent. Baalman allowed just one run and no walks on eight hits to the ACC regular-season champion Hokies, who field the No. 5 offense in Division I that had averaged more than seven runs per game. She shut down a Virginia Tech lineup that racked up the conference accolades, placing a league-best six players on the All-ACC First Team.

Baalman didn’t even know she was getting the starting nod against the Hokies when she woke up this morning, but she said the uncertainty never bothered her.

“It doesn’t really matter to me, all year we know (who’s starting) a couple hours before the game,” Baalman said. “I think all of our pitchers are ready to go at any moment, so it doesn’t really matter to us. We’re ready to face any team that they throw at us.”

Facing the Atlantic Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year in junior Carrie Eberle, Kentucky’s offense came through once again — thanks in large part to Kayla Kowalik. The freshman went 3-for-4 with an RBI and scored two of UK’s three earned runs.

Kowalik said the atmosphere surrounding the Lexington Regional “maybe even exceeded my expectations.

“Coming in I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I’d been to a couple games and it was always hyped … and it’s like my biggest dream to now participate and maybe make big plays and do big things.”

The Wildcats ran up the score thanks to four Virginia Tech errors, but the two earned runs they scored in the bottom of the fourth on Lauren Johnson’s triple and Jenny Schaper’s two-out single were all Baalman needed to earn her 10th win of the season.

Kentucky and Virginia Tech will square off again in the regional finals after the Hokies knocked off Illinois 5-1 in an elimination game Saturday night. The Wildcats will have two chances to advance. First pitch is scheduled for noon Sunday and UK will move into the Super Regional round with a win. Should the Cats lose that game, the teams will have a rematch at about 2:30 p.m. with the winner advancing.

Sunday

Virginia Tech at Kentucky

What: NCAA Lexington Regional at John Cropp Stadium

When: Noon (a second game, if necessary, would start at approximately 2:30 p.m.)

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