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Historic win puts softball in driver's seat at regionals

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Senior Samantha DeMartine was 3 for 3 Saturday with two RBI in the win over Michigan. (UK Athletics) Senior Samantha DeMartine was 3 for 3 Saturday with two RBI in the win over Michigan. (UK Athletics)
ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The Kentucky softball team entered the 2011 NCAA Tournament touting bigger hopes and higher expectations. Making its third consecutive trip to postseason play, the Wildcats talked about making it beyond regionals for the first time in school history.

But in a region that features No. 10 overall seed Michigan - which was ranked No. 2 in the polls to end the year - and Big East champion Notre Dame, the talk from the Wildcats appeared to be exactly that - just talk.

Or maybe not.

With Michigan mounting a furious last-inning comeback, Rachel Riley relieved starter Chanda Bell and closed the door on the Wolverines to preserve a historic 7-6 win over the Wolverines at Alumni Field in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was the second eye-opening victory in as many days for the UK softball team - the Cats run-ruled Notre Dame in five innings on Friday - and pushed Kentucky to the regional finals for the second time in school history.

More importantly, in a double-elimination format, it means Kentucky only has to win once Sunday to advance to its first super regional. UK's opposition, no matter if it's Michigan, Notre Dame or Western Michigan, has to beat the Wildcats twice in a row Sunday.

It wouldn't be totally impossible for a team like Michigan, which lost only its fifth game of the season Saturday, to win two in a row against Kentucky, but Saturday's victory clearly put UK in the driver's seat heading into the final day of regional play.

"That's very important, especially if our offense continues to do what it's been doing, and with our deep pitching staff, we don't have to worry about them tiring one of our pitchers out," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "We have a lot of options, so this is a good situation for us to be in."

It's a great situation for Lawson's club to be in. The Cats will play in Sunday's finals with a boatload of confidence, an ace that was untouchable until Saturday's seventh inning and an offense that is red-hot.

Facing one of the nation's best pitchers in Jordan Taylor (30-4, 1.41 ERA), Kentucky tagged her for seven runs (six of them earned) in 4.2 innings of work. It's the most runs the All-American has surrendered this year.

"We just had a game plan," said senior Samantha DeMartine, who blew the game open with RBI doubles in both the third and fourth innings. "That's what you're supposed to do, especially in big games like this. Coach has taught us well with that. Our game plan was hit the hard pitch and I think we did that very well."

Specifically, UK stayed back on Taylor's changeup and worked the count, especially the bottom of the order. Although all of the team's .300-plus hitters and 43 of the club's record 64 home runs sit in the top five in the order, it was the bottom four in the lineup that got the job done against mighty Michigan.

Led by DeMartine's 3-for-3 day, Kentucky's bottom four hitters were 6 for 12 with six RBI. Every single hit seemed to come in a clutch situation.

"It just keeps snowballing," DeMartine said. "Hopefully we can take it to tomorrow."

Even with the offensive outburst, the Cats found themselves on the verge of devastating defeat in the seventh.

Junior Chanda Bell had twirled back-to-back gems and had a two-hitter after five innings, but Michigan plated a run in the sixth and slammed Bell - literally - in the seventh.

"Of course I was thinking, 'There's no way they can score six runs in this inning; we've got this,' " Bell confessed.

Whether or not Bell let her guard down or Michigan just figured her out is up for debate, but Michigan tallied three singles and a walk before Ashley Lane, Michigan's big bopper, slugged a grand slam to left field to cut the margin to just one run.

Lawson was hoping Bell would force a pop-up, but she believed things were still under control even after the "unexpected" grand slam. She had her mind made up when she was going to bring drop-ball specialist Rachel Riley into the game.

"Chanda did great all day," Lawson said. "She threw the ball hard and it spun like crazy and that's why we were able to do what we were able to do. Luckily my parents paid a lot of money (to go to college) so I knew how many runs we could give. I felt confident that Riley could come in, in that part of the order and get them out. I was just really kind of waiting it out for that part of the order to bring her in."

But for a team that dropped two games last year to Michigan in Ann Arbor in similar comeback fashion, the grand slam evoked nightmares of last season's letdown, especially when the Michigan fans started roaring.

"It was a little scary for me," Riley said.

Nevertheless, Riley came in and closed the door with a line-drive out to Brittany Cervantes and back-to-back strikeouts, forcing Michigan to the loser's bracket and another game Saturday evening.

"I think we wasted a lot of innings," Michigan head coach Carol Hutchins said. "We weren't in a one-pitch (mindset). If they don't learn the lesson, it will be over. This is a wakeup call."

Or maybe it's a wakeup call to the rest of the tournament. The Kentucky softball team is good, confident and dead set on getting to its first super regionals. No matter who the opponent is Sunday, UK is squarely in the driver's seat to do just that.

"It's going to give us momentum," Bell said. "Even if we get other teams that are ranked, the ranking doesn't matter; we know we can beat them now."

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Kentucky got a nice gift from the umps when Chanda Bell hit Amanda Chedester with a pitch that should have loaded the bases but the umps called her out. What a blown call! Worst case should have been a foul ball. Michigan had 2 on and were rallying but the umps took it away. Must be nicew to get such gifts in such an important game. Hopefully Sundays umps will be less biassed and actually call a fair game.

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  • Eric Lindsey: Homer, the explanation I received after the game was that while it hit her, she was attempting to swing. According read more
  • homer: Kentucky got a nice gift from the umps when Chanda Bell hit Amanda Chedester with a pitch that should have read more