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No. 17 softball shines in extra innings to defeat Illinois, USF

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Senior outfielder Alice O’Brien ripped an RBI game-winning single in the eighth inning against Illinois and junior pitcher Lauren Cumbess completed the doubleheader in style by recording a win in the circle behind two hits and two RBI at the plate, as the No. 17/19 University of Kentucky softball team won its third consecutive extra-inning game, taking down Illinois 5-4 in eight innings and USF 6-3 in nine innings on Friday. Both games were played at the USF Softball Stadium in Tampa, Fla., as part of the Under Armour Invitational.

O’Brien delivered the late offense for Kentucky (13-3) in the win over the Fighting Illini to start the day. After Illinois got a run in the bottom of the sixth to tie the game at 4-4, neither team got a rally started in the seventh, forcing extra innings. In the top of the eighth, sophomore catcher Griffin Joiner started the inning at second due to international tiebreaker rules with O’Brien powering a single up the middle to score Joiner and give UK the 5-4 lead. The RBI was O’Brien’s 10th of the season, while she also has three doubles, one homer and 13 runs scored.

“I’m pretty sure I had two strikes on me and I just battled and got deep into the count and tried to get my bat on something and send it up the middle,” O’Brien said after the game-winning single. “Luckily it squeaked up the middle. I had a rough day (at the plate) but that one made it feel a little bit better. You are going to have some of those days sometimes.”

True freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley threw a solid bottom of the eighth inning, getting a sacrifice bunt for the first out and then a groundout and a fly out to center to strand a runner at third and seal the win. Nunley, who is now 8-0 on the year, went all eight innings in game one, allowing seven hits, four runs – two earned – while striking out five. Nunley leads UK in ERA this season with a 2.19 mark, including a team-high 42 strikeouts.

Joiner provided most of UK’s offense vs. Illions with a 2-for-3 night, drilling her team-leading fourth homer of the season and team-high fifth double. The hits took her hitting streak to a career-high tying six games before going hitless against USF. Joiner is having a sensational sophomore season at the dish already tying her overall home run total from last season and sitting just six RBI shy of her 2012 total. The native of Hopkinsville, Ky., is hitting .357 (15-for-42) on the year with 14 RBI.

Cumbess was the hero in game two, delivering both Wildcat hits in the game along with earning the victory in the circle with five hitless innings. Junior Ellen Weaver started the game and had a strong outing, scattering six hits over four innings allowing only two earned runs with two strikeouts. Cumbess came on to pitch in the fifth inning and kept the Bulls hitless the rest of the way, allowing a run to score in extra innings, which was unearned. All told, Cumbess struck out four Bulls, increasing her season total to 29 strikeouts. The junior has a 2.71 ERA this season with a 3-1 record in 31 innings pitched.

At the plate vs. USF, Cumbess went 2-for-4 with two RBI, including an RBI single in the third inning through the left side of the infield and an RBI bunt single in the ninth. For the season, Cumbess leads UK with a .429 (21-for-49) batting average, including four doubles, two homers and a team-high 17 RBI. Cumbess’ was riding an eight-game hitting streak heading into action Friday, but went hitless against Illinois.

“I was just throwing my game and trusting my pitches,” Cumbess said after the victory. “Ellen had a great game and they started to take some pitches on her so we thought it would be good to switch it up on them. I am a different look to them than Ellen because she is a lefty and I am a righty. I think that threw them off seeing a lefty the first part of the game.”

With the win over USF, Kentucky (13-3) has now defeated two teams that played in the Women’s College World Series last season. UK started the year with a 3-2 season-opening, extra-inning win over then-No. 3 Cal. Cal and USF were two of eight teams to make the 2012 WCWS last season.

In all, UK has defeated three ranked teams this season in Cal, then-No. 16 Washington and then-No. 20 Stanford, while also besting four teams in Oregon State, San Diego State, USC Upstate and USF that were or currently are receiving votes.

“These wins are exciting and good for us,” O’Brien said. “It is always good when you can battle back. That was a huge win (against USF) and a great team effort overall.”

UK has now played three consecutive extra-inning games, starting with its 12-8 victory over USC Upstate last Sunday in Spartanburg, S.C., before the two wins Friday. In all, UK has not played a regulation seven-inning game since its Feb. 15 win against Washington. Since the win over the Huskies, UK run-ruled UC Riverside in six innings, lost in five innings to No. 1 Oklahoma, run-ruled Georgetown in six innings and run-ruled Howard in five innings before the USC Upstate game.

“We have a lot of fight and a lot of fun when we play,” Cumbess said. “I think we keep that fun spirit (late in games) and that helps us stay confident and calm and just play our game the entire time. We just stay happy and have fun playing the game of softball.”

The Wildcats are currently riding a five-game winning streak, which ties their highest such streak of the season.

Illinois jumped on top in game one with two runs in the first inning, helped by a Wildcat error. After a slap hit to the left side of the infield by Alex Booker to start the inning, Kylie Johnson put down a sacrifice bunt to advance Booker to second. Nunley then got a strikeout for the second out before Jess Perkins hit a sharp grounder to the right side that Stokes couldn’t handle, allowing a run to score. Remeny Perez then hammered a double to leftfield, scoring Perkins and give the Illini a 2-0 lead.

UK tied the game in the top of the third behind the two-run blast from Joiner. With one out, senior infielder Kara Dill singled up the middle and after a failed bunt attempt, Joiner redeemed herself with a deep homer to rightfield to tie the game.

The Fighting Illini took the lead back in the bottom of the third after a one-out walk to Johnson, who stole second and third and came home to score on the fielder’s choice by Perkins as UK’s throw home to get Johnson out was late. However, Illinois didn’t have the lead long as UK got a leadoff single by freshman Maisie Steed in the fourth and then a homer by junior Ginny Carroll to leftfield to make it a 4-3 game.

After Illinois tied the game in the bottom of the sixth with an RBI single by pinch hitter Jessica Davis and a scoreless seventh inning, the stage was set for O’Brien to deliver the single and give UK the win.

Kentucky scored first in the second game of the day, taking a 1-0 lead in the second inning against USF. Steed started the inning with a leadoff walk and after Carroll struck out, junior Emily Gaines got hit by a pitch to put runners on second and third with one out. True freshman Darington Richardson pinch ran at first for Gaines and UK put on a double steal with the USF catcher throwing the ball into leftfield wildly, allowing Steed to score and Richardson to move to second. Stokes reached base after a passed ball on a strikeout to put runners at the corners but a fielder’s choice and a Dill fly out ended the inning.

USF answered in the bottom of the inning when Nicolette Levine hit her first home run of the season to leftfield to tie the game 1-1. The Bulls got a two-out double by Courtney Goff later in the inning, but Weaver got the pinch hitter Stormi Grzvbek to groundout to end the frame.

The Wildcats took back the lead in the top of the third when Cumbess recorded UK’s first hit of the game. After back-to-back walks to Joiner and O’Brien, Cumbess stepped up and singled through the left side, scoring pinch runner Sarah Frazer to give UK the lead. Steed hit a soft liner to short that resulted in a double play at second base and Carroll popped up to second base to end the inning.

The Bulls got a run in the third inning after back-to-back singles from Kenshyra Jackson and Lee Ann Spivey before a pop up bunt gave UK an out. Mo Santos then hit a high fly ball to rightfield that got caught in the wind and drifted all the way to the wall over Jolly’s head, scoring Jackson to tie the game. Weaver then walked Courtney Goff to load the bases, but got out of the inning without any more runs when D’Anna Devine grounded into a fielder’s choice and Ashil Goff grounded out.

UK got four runs in the ninth inning behind one hit and one USF error. The inning started with O’Brien at second base due to international tiebreak rules, who later scored when Cumbess pushed a bunt single past the pitcher and first baseman. Cumbess later advanced to second on a wild pitch strike three to Steed, who advanced to first on the wild pitch and made it to second when Cumbess’ advanced to third on aggressive base running with a stolen base. After Carroll flied out to rightfield, freshman outfielder Sylver Samuel was intentionally walked, followed by Christian Stokes earning a bases loaded walk to make it 4-2 UK. The final two runs of the inning scored when Jolly hit a slow roller to the shortstop, who threw wildly home allowing two runs to score.

USF got a run in the bottom of the ninth on two illegal pitch calls by the third base umpire. Cumbess threw a called strike three for the first out of the inning, but the umpire ruled illegal pitch, granting the base runner third base. The UK hurler then got a swinging strike three, but another illegal pitch call advanced the base runner home to make it a 6-3 game. For good measure, Cumbess struck out the batter a third time for the first out of the inning. The native of Normal, Ill., then got a lineout and a fly out to end the game.

The Wildcats will continue play in the Under Armour Invitational on Saturday with another doubleheader. UK will start the day against Loyola Marymount at 12:15 p.m. ET before taking on Central Michigan at 2:45 p.m. ET to conclude the day. Both games will be played at the Eddie C. Moore Sports Complex field 1. Kentucky ends the tournament Sunday at 9 a.m. against Western Michigan.

Kentucky will play host to the SEC Tournament this season for the first time in school history. The event, which is considered one of the most prestigious softball tournaments in the nation, will be May 8-11 in Lexington. The championship game will be featured on ESPN2, while all other games will be shown on ESPNU. Ticket information for the tournament can be found here: http://www.ukathletics.com/secsoftball/tickets.html.

For the latest on UK softball, follow “@UKSoftball” on Twitter or like Kentucky Softball on Facebook.


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