KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – After a history-making win in the opening round of the SEC Tournament the Kentucky softball team was on the verge of another upset of a top-10 ranked opponent. Kentucky took fifth-ranked Alabama into extra innings before the Tide’s Whitney Larsen smacked a walk-off solo home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to edge UK, 2-1 in extra innings Friday night in the second round of the conference tournament.
The Wildcats went toe-to-toe with a reigning College World Series participant and had a perfect night from the plate from All-SEC shortstop Molly Johnson. Nine runners left on base proved to be UK’s down fall as they struggled all night advancing runners.
The freshmen pitching tandem of Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley kept the powerful Alabama offense to a minimal allowing just five hits all game between the two first year players. Johnson had three singles and a double and scored UK’s lone run. Riley was also impressive offensively with Kentucky’s RBI single in the third inning to give the Wildcats an opening lead.
UK just could not come up with another game-changing hit offensively and relied heavily on another incredible defensive performance. Larsen’s hit in the eighth came after UK stranded a runner in the top of the seventh.
“Our defense is obviously very, very good and has come a long way,” said Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson. “Our pitching is night and day different this year than it ever has been. Offensively, we are getting smarter. We have a little ways to go and have to a better job of scoring runs and capitalizing on some opportunities.”
Kentucky drops to 32-21 on the season and will now await its fate for NCAA Tournament play. Alabama improves to 47-8 on the year and will play for the SEC Championship between the winners of Florida and Tennessee.
“We’re really excited about the possibilities of playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Lawson said. “I think at the moment we’re a little bummed about this game, because we had our chances. But, we’re excited about the NCAA Tournament and I don’t think it has hit us yet. I don’t think it will hit us until we actually take the field in a tournament game.”
Kentucky threatened in the top of the first for the second straight game. Johnson led off with a bunt-single to give Kentucky its first base runner. Sophomore Meagan Aull attempted a sacrifice-but, but Johnson beat out the throw at second to keep both runners on base. Sophomore Megan Yocke did deliver a sac bunt to move the runners into scoring position. Freshman Brittany Cervantes then enjoyed a 14-pitch at-bat and earned a walk to load the bases. However, just as the Wildcats did in their win over Georgia, UK suffered back-to-back outs to end the inning without scratching the scoreboard.
Bell, facing Alabama for the first time this season, sat the Crimson Tide’s potent lead off batters down in order. Bell got Brittany Rogers to sit down on strikes. Lauren Parker lined out to Bell and then the SEC Player of the Year Charlotte Morgan fouled out to sophomore Annie Rowlands in left field to end the first inning.
Kentucky had a leadoff single taken away when Larsen made a spectacular diving snag to keep Samantha DeMartine from reaching first. UK would then fall in three straight at-bats in the second inning.
Bell was at her best in the bottom half of the second. Despite a double from Ashley Holcomb, Bell got all three outs on strikeouts to end the scoring threat and keep the game scoreless.
The Blue and White struck for a run in the top of the third after loading the bases for the second time in the game. Johnson led off with a single into right field and then promptly stole second with an out. Yocke drew a walk to put another runner on base. Cervantes drilled a ball into deep left field and Larsen trotted to the warning track and made an over the shoulder-grab in foul territory, but the ball was hit deep enough for Johnson to move to third. Junior Natalie Smith was plucked by a pitch to load the bases giving UK its second chance of the afternoon. Riley delivered a single through the left side to plate Johnson and give the Wildcats a 1-0 advantage.
Alabama answered with a leadoff solo home run that just cleared the fence off the bat of Kellie Eubanks to knot the score at one. However, the action continued to get interesting in the bottom of the third. Alabama drew a no-out walk and then Rogers singled up the middle to place two runners on base. In a sacrifice fly attempt the runner at third was deemed to have left early to give Kentucky two outs. Johnson then helped conclude the inning with a magnificent catch along the third base line to end the scoring threat with the score tied.
Kentucky got a runner to second base in the top of the fourth, but once again struggled to get a runner across the plate. With two outs Johnson tallied her third hit of the game with a double that nicked about four feet shy from the top of the left field fence. The inning ended on a strikeout with Johnson left stranded at second.
Riley entered the fourth inning to relieve Bell. Alabama’s Cassandra Reilly-Boccia had a sizzling line drive but, Johnson made a dazzling snag to rob the Tide of a hit. Johnson jumped about five feet in the air and just made the snag to keep Reilly-Boccia off the base paths. That was the biggest threat of the inning for Alabama as Riley ended the inning on a strikeout and another line-out.
The Wildcats threatened in the top of the fifth yet again, but once again came up just short. Cervantes reached base on a walk with one out and advanced to second on a Smith groundout to second. Riley, who had already delivered an RBI single, smacked a well-hit ball into deep left field. Larsen robbed the Blue and White of a run once again as she drifted back to the wall and just made a catch over her right shoulder to keep the score tied at one.
Kentucky’s defense came up with another huge play in the bottom half of the fifth. With two outs Rogers got on base with a bunt that went about four feet in front of the plate. One of the best base stealers in college softball then attempted to get into scoring position, but Yocke and Johnson teamed up for the second time this season to catch her stealing at second to end the inning.
Mordecai got a hold of one in the top of the sixth, but once again Larsen was able to make the catch on the warning track to keep UK off the base paths to end the inning.
Riley sat down the heart of Alabama’s line-up despite giving up a walk to Reilly-Boccia to give Kentucky’s offense a chance in the top of the seventh.
Johnson once again got things going for UK in the top of the seventh. She picked up her fourth hit of the game with a single into left field. After back-to-back outs Johnson was able to shift over to second on a wild pitch. Cervantes sent a zinger that looked like it might slip through the left side, but Eubanks made a spectacular grab by going air-born to save the run and keep the score tied at one.
Cervantes got her revenge in the bottom of the inning when she robbed Eubanks of a single. The freshman third baseman went belly-down on the dirt to snag the ball and then from her knees tossed it to first to get the out and preserve the tie to force extra innings.
In the top of the eighth the Wildcats fell in order including another fly out to Larsen in left field from DeMartine. After a great defensive game Larsen came up with the game-winning home run to lift the Tide to the championship game.
Kentucky will receive its tournament bit Sunday night as the NCAA will announce the 2009 field at 10 .m. ET.