Photo slideshow: Kentucky softball clinches NCAA Lexington Regional
Last week at a press conference ahead of the NCAA Tournament’s opening round, University of Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson called the Lexington Regional “one of the tougher regions in the country.”
The Wildcats turned that tough road into a cakewalk.
Behind a record-breaking performance from junior second baseman Alex Martens, Kentucky blasted Virginia Tech for an 11-1 run-rule victory in six innings at John Cropp Stadium on Sunday, finishing off a dominant run through the first weekend of the tournament. Going 3-0 in the regional over the course of three days, the Cats (36-22) outscored their opponents 26-4 to reach the super regionals for the third straight year.
Martens went 3-for-4 at the plate on Sunday, driving in five runs as UK lit up Atlantic Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year Carrie Eberle for the second straight day. Eberle, who entered the weekend with a record of 25-6, also took the loss on Saturday when the Cats toppled the ACC regular-season champion Hokies 8-1.
Martens’ two-run double in the top of the third inning gave the Cats a 3-0 lead and made her UK’s new record holder for most RBI in a single season. She added to that record with a three-run homer in the top of the sixth. Martens now has 66 RBI this year. She passed Brooke Marnitz, who set the previous record with 61 in 2007.
Of Martens capturing the RBI record, Lawson said, “I’m just proud of her that she was able to do that for herself.
“I say this all the time: I recruited Alex because she has the ‘it’ factor. And I don’t know what makes Alex tick, I just know that she ticks at a very high level,” Lawson said. “I’m just happy that she’s realizing her potential because she’s always had that potential. She’s an exceptional ballplayer. She has an exceptional mind. But, she really is that humble. At times I have to yell at her to be a little bit more selfish. When she kind of figured out that she had to be a bit more selfish is when you started to see the RBIs come a little bit more easy.”
Martens flashed that streak of humility by spreading the credit to her teammates when asked about her new record.
“If you look at the stats and numbers from this team, the numbers are drastically changing and growing,” Martens said. “It has to do with them getting on base … that’s how RBIs happen. So I have to give all the credit to them for their on-base percentages and their batting averages. That’s how RBIs come. It helped during the season that they were walking Abbey (Cheek) almost every at-bat because there was always a runner on base and there is a different mindset knowing that you are going to have a base runner automatically when you are in the box.”
Martens wasn’t the only Wildcat who came up big on Sunday. Cheek went 3-for-4 and scored a pair of runs while Katie Reed went 2-for-3 with a walk and three runs scored. Jenny Schaper went 2-for-4 and got UK on the board with a solo homer in the top of the third.
And, perhaps most importantly, Kentucky’s offense was backed by a masterful pitching performance for the third straight game in the tournament. Autumn Humes tossed a complete game for the Cats, allowing five hits and one run as she improved to 15-10 on the year. On Saturday, Grace Baalman (10-9) shut down the Hokies on her way to a complete-game victory. Pitching was the Wildcats’ biggest question mark entering the tournament, and UK allowed just two runs in two games to Virginia Tech (47-11), who entered the weekend with the fifth-ranked offense in Division I at more than seven runs scored per game.
Now, Kentucky heads into the super regionals looking to advance to the College World Series for the second time in program history. The Wildcats will face the winner of Sunday’s late Seattle Region finals between Washington and Mississippi State. If the Huskies win, UK will travel to Washington for the super regionals. If the Bulldogs win, UK will host the super regional.