TEMPE, ARIZONA -- The team that was ranked number one in the country at times last year, the one with the veteran starting pitchers, two freshman All-Americas, the pre-season Southeastern Conference Player of the Year – it’s on the sidelines now, after a skid that turned into a downhill tumble.
The team that relies on at least a half-dozen freshmen, including a record-setting rookie pitcher who travels with a stuffed monkey – THAT team is still alive and taking aim at Kentucky’s first berth in the College World Series.
The baseball Wildcats opened the season with high expectations, despite the loss of practically all of its power hitters and some key members of the best bullpen in the SEC. And still, Kentucky shot out of the box, racing to a Top 10 ranking after series victories over Florida and Mississippi State.
But after a sweep by LSU in Baton Rouge, the Wildcats seemed to lose their mojo and slumped to a finish that was as puzzling as it was disappointing.
Meanwhile, across Cooper Drive in the newly-minted John Cropp Stadium, the softball Wildcats handled a tough schedule full of nationally-ranked opponents so well they were rewarded with the #12 seed in the NCAA tournament, meaning they hosted a regional for the first time in program history.
Kentucky won three of four in the double-elimination event, earning its second berth in a Super Regional in three years – and this despite losing its best hitter and starting shortstop (a senior leader) for most of the season with a broken hand.
The Wildcats count as many as five freshmen (and a sophomore catcher) in their batting order, and most of the time head coach Rachel Lawson hands the softball to starting pitcher Kelsey Nunley, another freshman who’s fashioned a record of 27-6, shattering the school record for most victories in a single season.
Nicknamed “Skeeter” by her father because she had such skinny legs as a child, the native of Soddy Daisy, Tennessee, has been a real pest to opposing hitters. Nunley went 3-1 in the regional with a 0.83 ERA, working 25.1 innings and striking out 15, limiting opposing batters to a .188 average. She’ll be trying to match those efforts this weekend at Arizona State in Tempe, where she arrived Thursday with a stuffed animal named “Skeeter Monkey” strapped to her back pack. Every team needs a good luck charm.
Nunley was named to the league’s All-Freshman team, joining her battery mate on the all-star rolls. Grffin Joiner was named 2nd team All-SEC and was named the catcher on the All-SEC Defensive Team.
Strong-armed freshman shortstop Christian Sokes started at 2nd base until the second game of the LSU series, when senior Kara Dill, attempting to bunt, was hit on the right hand, suffering a broken bone. At the time, Dill was leading the Cats with a .357 average. Stokes hasn’t approached her level of proficiency on offense but on defense she’s shown time and again that she’ll be the infield anchor for the next three years.
The young Wildcats know their way around Tempe; they played here earlier in the season, in the Kajikawa Classic, hosted by ASU. The Sun Devils spanked the Cats 8-1 in Kentucky’s fourth game of the season, although the Wildcats upset then-#3 California in the season opener, and knocked off Western Michigan and Oregon State before falling to the host team and Portland State.
Two more victories at Farrington Stadium would put the Cats in the College World Series for the first time in program history. It’s a challenge as steep as some of the mountains that surround the campus: 4th-ranked ASU’s starting pitcher, Dallas Escobedo, gave up just five hits and zero runs in the Sun Devils’ regional title run. Escabedo no-hit San Jose State, and then twice shut out Georgia (the best offensive team in the SEC), 2-0 in both games.
Kentucky has one of the weaker offensive attacks in the league, which is why it’s vital that Nunley be on top of her game from the moment she enters the circle. But if “Skeeter” can sting the Sun Devils – and she’ll have to do it twice – Kentucky can make even more history in what already is a historic season.