GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kentucky's softball team has always had a tough time in Gainesville. The Cats (32-25) have won there just six times in program history.
Their struggles there continued on Saturday.
Gators pitcher Lauren Haeger threw a two-hit shutout in Game 1 of the NCAA Super Regional, propelling Florida (54-6) to a 7-0 shutout victory.
Haeger retired the first 16 UK batters before Kara Howard broke up the perfect game with a single to left in the sixth inning. An opposite field single by catcher Griffin Joiner in the seventh was the only other hit Haeger allowed.
"We took pitches that we should have been swinging at," said UK Coach Rachel Lawson, who called Haeger arguably the best player in softball. "We were expecting to see (pitches) all over (the plate) even though she never pitches it there. We were swinging at pitcher's pitches late in the count and were popping up."
Validating Lawson's point, Haeger improved her to 27-1 with a 1.29 ERA. She has held opponents to a .184 opponent batting. And her 16th home run of the season, a solo shot in the sixth, upped her RBI total to 64 and her average to .335.
In her last 222⁄3 innings against Kentucky, Haeger hasn't given up a run and surrendered just six hits.
On two separate occasions, UK starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley (14-15) was one strike away from getting out of a two-out bases loaded jam. But the Gators took advantage.
The Gators' leadoff hitter, Kelsey Stewart, reached first by catching the Cats off guard by throwing down a bunt on Nunley's first pitch of the game. A hard grounder to short by Nicole Dewitt followed. It bounced over the glove of Christian Stokes and rolled into left field, allowing Stewart to advance to third.
The crowd erupted with Nunley set to face Haeger and Bailey Castro next. But the UK pitcher struck out both of them. After a walk to Kirsti Merritt loaded the bases, Nunley got ahead 0-2 in the count before Taylore Fuller was hit by a pitch to give Florida a 1-0 lead.
And then Florida caught a big break. Kayli Kvistad, the next batter, seemed to have grounded out routinely to first to end the inning. The ball hugged the foul line and was clearly fair. But home-plate umpire Steve McCown called it a dead ball.
"The reason it was called dead was because it hit (Kvistad's) leg," said Lawson, who came out of the dugout to ask for an explanation.
Nunley disagreed with the call during the postgame press conference.
Two pitches after the controversial call, Kvistad turned on a Nunley pitch and smacked a liner to right field. Breanne Ray overcommitted by taking three steps in, only to have the ball fly over her head. It was a base-clearing double to put the Gators up 4-0.
"Things didn't exactly go our way or how we anticipated (in the first)," Lawson said. "It kind of put us in a hole. When you do that with Haeger pitching ... it's going to be a tough day."
Nunley settled in and retired the next 10 batters before Meagan Price took over in the fifth inning.
Haeger led off the sixth with her home run off UK freshman Erin Rethlake.
Two batters later, Merritt hit a two-run homer to put the game out of reach.