TEMPE, Az (WKYT) - “And then softballs began flying out of the ballpark.”
Your faithful correspondent knew there was a chance he would be typing those words in that order after Kentucky’s opening-round game at Arizona State in the NCAA Super Regional. Only, he didn’t think they would pertain to the Wildcats.
After all, the Sun Devils are one of the most offensively explosive teams in the nation, with 92 home runs coming into the weekend. And, sure enough, they took a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the third on a three-run blast by shortstop Cheyenne Coyle, her 19th of the season.
But then something odd happened. The Wildcats began pounding ASU pitcher Dallas Escobedo, one of the most dominant pitchers in America. Escobedo was 28-4, with a staggering 310 strikeouts (tops on the Pac-12). She’s been the backbone of the Sun Devils’ pitching staff dating back to 2011, her freshman season, when she went 37-3 and led ASU to its second NCAA championship as a first-team All-American.
The Wildcats took her over the wall in Farrington Stadium, again and again.
First it was Christian Stokes. The freshman shortstop lined one to dead centerfield in the top of the fifth inning, the first earned run surrendered by Escobedo in 31 innings.
The Devils answered with two more runs in the bottom of the fifth to make it 5-1, a seemingly hopeless situation. ASU, after all, was 38-3 at home coming into the tournament.
But Kentucky wasn’t done yet. The Cats just kept launching.
In the top of the sixth, junior Lauren Cumbess led off with a blast that cleared the wall in left. One out later, Alice O’Brien snuck one just inside the right field foul pole to make it 5-3. After another out, Stokes did it again, taking Escobedo deep to left-centerfield. It was the first time in school history that a UK player had hit two home runs in one NCAA tournament game.
Unfortunately, all four bombs were solo shots. And when the Wildats managed to put the tying run on base with nobody out in seventh against reliever Mackenzie Popescue, they could find no more long ball magic in their bats, falling by the 5-4 final.
Prior to the game, head coach Rachel Lawson had said the key to hitting Escobedo was to avoid swinging at her rise ball pitch, which sails up through and out of the strike zone. The Cats were able to take her advice and hit the mistakes Escobedo left up in the zone – only, there weren’t any runners on base when they did manage to go yard.
“I thought our team did a nice job off of Dallas (Escobedo),” Lawson said. “That’s the best hitting performance we have had in a little while so I thought we did a nice job squaring up on some of her pitches. She has a couple different heights that she uses and luckily we didn’t fish too often at the super high ones. I thought we did a nice job putting the barrel on it and being on time for it.”
Stokes said that even when the Wildcats were down 5-1, there was no head-hanging in the Kentucky dugout.
“I don’t think it’s over until it’s over,” she said. “We just kind of ran out of time in the end but we were on (Escobedo) pretty good.”
They looked nothing like the team that lost to ASU 8-1 in Tempe back in February. This is a much more seasoned, confident Kentucky bunch. But they have to win back-to-back games on Sunday if the Wildcats want to make it to their first College World Series.
. “We know ASU is going to hit,” said Cumbess. “It’s just a matter of if we can hit and keep up with them. We are going to try to keep them off base but it’s no surprise that they are going to get their runs. We’re just going to try to get more.”
And if Farrington Stadium becomes a launching pad once again, they just might be able to pull the upset. Twice.
(UK vs. ASU can be heard Sunday with pre-game at 4:45 p.m.ET; first pitch at 5 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM, I Heart Radio and wlap.com).