[caption id="attachment_353828" align="alignnone" width="2560"] UK Athletics
This game was as close as it could be. Kentucky battled back after going down 4-2 to come within one run in the final inning. With the bases loaded, two outs and the count at 3-2...the 'Cats struck out to come up just short in the opening game.
Here's how it went down.
Facing one of the top pitchers in the nation against No. 3 Alabama's Montana Fouts, Kentucky got hitters aboard right away. UK's star batter, Kayla Kowalik, immediately singled and advanced to third a few plays later but was the only Wildcat to get on base in the inning and was stranded just 60 feet from home plate.
Neither team was able to score in the first two innings as Fouts and Kentucky's Autumn Humes were nearly flawless on the mound.
In the top of the third, Rylea Smith singled on a bunt to get Kentucky its leadoff runner on base. Miranda Stoddard grounded into a fielder's choice out for Smith but replaced her at first base with one out. Kowalik struck out on the next at-bat, surprisingly, but Stoddard stole second before Tatum Spangler came to the plate.
Spangler singled and an error on the throw to first sent her to second and scored Stoddard to put the 'Cats on the board first, 1-0. That was all the damage UK did in the third as they also held Bama scoreless through three.
In the top of the fourth, Kentucky struck gold again, this time on a solo home run from Renee Abernathy which pushed the lead to 2-zip.
It was the bottom of the fourth where things went bad for the Lady Bat 'Cats. The Crimson Tide loaded the bases and a triple cleared the runners to give Alabama a quick 3-2 lead. A few batters later, an RBI single sent the girl at third home to give Alabama a 4-2 edge.
Kentucky failed to respond in the fifth and sixth innings as Fouts really locked in, retiring 13 straight batters heading into the top of the final inning.
In the seventh, needing at least two runs to keep the game alive, Kentucky's first batter struck out before Abernathy returned to the batter's box, where she delivered a huge second home run of the day to pull Kentucky within one score.
Autumn Humes singled again to get on base and was replaced by freshman pinch-runner Vanessa Nesby. Then, Rylea Smith bounced one to third and she and Nesby got to first and second safely. Kentucky's next batter struck out, which sent the .500 hitter Kayla Kowalik back to the plate.
Alabama elected to intentionally walk her, sending the tying run to third and loading the bases with two outs, which I found quite bizarre. Nonetheless, Spangler approached the box with the bases full, two outs and Kentucky in need of one more run to extend the game.
She worked the count to 3-1, threatening to walk home the tying run. She fouled the next pitch off and had a full count with the next pitch likely deciding the ball game. Alabama's Fouts whistled the third strike right down the middle as Spangler watched.
4-3 Alabama. Ball game.
Despite the result, UK head coach Rachel Lawson was still very positive about her team's performance.
"[I'm] really proud of how the team competed," she said. "Much better at the plate than we were the last time we faced Fouts." Adding that, "Autumn was really good on the mound."
Lawson was proud of her team, saying "I thought it was one of the better games we've played all year, for sure."
Really, Kentucky played Fouts and the Tide as good as you can, just except for "that dreaded one inning," which Lawson noted turned the game around and gave Fouts a boost. Overall, though, she was "very pleased."
Nice to hear such words of encouragement after the toughest loss of the year. If one thing is clear: Lawson absolutely believes her squad can compete with this Alabama team and come away victorious in the next two games.
A tough way to go down but this much less experienced Kentucky team proved it could hang with the Tide in the Super Regional. It'll be a tall task beating them twice in two days to advance, but today showcased that UK has every ability to come out on top.
They'll just need to do it two days in a row. Tomorrow they face Alabama in a win or home game 2 of the Super Regional at 2 p.m. on the main ESPN channel. Be sure to tune in.