Heading into the NCAA Tournament’s Seattle Super Regional, a major storyline was the impending showdown between the prolific offense of the University of Kentucky softball team and the stingy pitching staff of host Washington.
The Huskies’ hurlers won the first round, shutting down the Cats in key moments to lead Washington to a 3-0 victory in the opening game of the best-of-three series on Friday night.
Kentucky (36-23), the No. 14 overall seed in the tournament, must now defeated the third-seeded Huskies (49-7) twice in a row to reach the Women’s College World Series for the second time in program history (2014). Game 2 is scheduled for 10 p.m. EDT Saturday and will be televised on ESPN2.
A wild pitch and a fielding error helped the Huskies jump out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning Friday.
In the third inning, another fielding error proved costly to the Cats. Lauren Johnson misplayed a single to right field and Washington’s Amirah Milloy wound up on third, then scored on a single.
Facing a pair of the toughest pitchers in the country who anchor a staff with the fifth-lowest earned-run average in Division I, Kentucky did manage to give itself opportunities.
Kayla Kowalik drew a walk to lead off the second inning and moved to second on Johnson’s groundout, but sge was eventually stranded on third base.
With the Cats trailing 2-0 in the top of the fourth, Alex Martens reached on an error and moved to second on Kowalik’s single. Kentucky had runners on the corners with two outs when Washington brought in sophomore star Gabbie Plain, who has tossed three no-hitters this season. Plain struck out Mallory Peyton to end the threat and finished the game in the circle for Washington.
Kentucky had runners on first and second with two out and Abbey Cheek at the plate in the top of the fifth, but Plain drew a groundout from the Wildcats’ top hitter to end the inning.
UK made one last major threat in the top of the sixth when Martens led off with a single and Kowalik reached on an error. Johnson moved the runners to second and third with a sacrifice bunt, but Plain drew back-to-back grounders to escape the jam.
Kentucky managed to put pressure on the Huskies despite getting just four hits on the night, but the Cats were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
Plain earned the win to improve to 22-2 on the season and lower her ERA to 1.16. Washington starting pitcher Taran Alvelo worked the first 3 2/3 innings, allowing two hits and striking out three.
Kentucky starter Grace Baalman was saddled with the tough-luck loss and dropped to 10-10 on the season. The sophomore allowed five hits and two earned runs over five innings. Baalman retired the Huskies in order twice. She gave up a solo home run to Morganne Flores, who leads the Huskies with 22 bombs on the year, in the bottom of the fifth.