Jolene Henderson pitched a complete-game shutout Saturday to lead the Bears to a 1-0 victory over UK in the first of a best-of-three series in the Lexington Super Regional. Stifling an offense that has set five single-season offense records this year, Henderson used a "quick pitch" approach to strike out four while allowing just one hit and three base runners in a pivotal opening-game win over the Wildcats.
"It definitely took our hitters awhile to get used to how fast she was getting back on the mound and throwing," said senior catcher Megan Yocke, who tallied UK's only hit of the game. "Unless we had our timing down, it was difficult to get set."
Henderson, the 2011 Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year, is now 3-0 against Kentucky , which includes a 6-1 win in last year's season-opening Kajikawa Classic and a 1-0 victory in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Even more troubling for UK is she has yet to allow an earned run in those 21 innings of work and has surrendered just 10 hits.
"She is a lot more mature this year and I think that she is great," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "She does so well, and it is not so much that she quick pitches, which we haven't seen a pitcher like that yet, but she changes her motion throughout the game, throughout the inning and throughout the batter. That was something that we were having a hard time adjusting to timing wise and have not seen yet this year."
Henderson's game should be of no surprise as she improved to 38-7 on the year while lowering her ERA to 0.78, but if the Cats hope to win two games Sunday to advance in the tournament, Kentucky will, in all likelihood, have to beat Henderson twice.
"It gets frustrating, but we have been there before and we bounce back," Yocke said. "Look at the Michigan game. We had four total hits and then were able to come back. That is what is going to have to happen tomorrow. I think that our team will make the adjustments tomorrow and come back and get the win."
As dominant as Henderson was, Kentucky had a prime opportunity to spoil her perfect mark in the third inning when Yocke lined a single into left field. Sophomore Alice O'Brien, who reached base on a walk and advanced to second on a fielder's choice, took a big turn around third base, but the liner was hit so hard to Jamia Reid in left field that assistant coach Kristine Himes was forced to hold O'Brien at third.
In the next at-bat, sophomore Kara Dill lined a rocket to the left side of the infield with two outs and runners on the corner, but the shot was right at Cal third baseman Jace Williams.
Kentucky would never reach past first base again.
"I think all great pitchers can do that," California head coach Diane Ninemire said. "They make big batting averages look small some days. Jolene threw a great game today and she kept them off balance. Kentucky has a great hitting club and we have to come out tomorrow with the same intensity we had today."
One pitch the difference in Bell's tough-luck loss
Bell's one mistake, a 1-2 pitch to Frani Echavarria over the heart of the plate, ended up over the fence in center field, the difference in UK's 1-0 loss to California. Echavarria's solo shot -- her first home run of the season -- spoiled a sensational effort by Bell, who hurled six innings of six-hit, one-run ball while pitching out of several big jams.
"Overall I felt pretty strong and thought it was a good day for me out there," Bell said. "I had one bad pitch and it is kind of upsetting that one bad pitch can change the whole game."
Bell said she didn't get enough spin or velocity on the pitch, but Lawson took the blame for the pitch.
"I think that the person that called the pitch shouldn't have called it," Lawson said. "She clearly could keep her hands up and got it out of the park, so I think I should take responsibility for that."
Whether or not Lawson will use Bell again for Sunday's first game or turn to junior Rachel Riley (12-5, 2.57 ERA), who picked up the regional finals victory over Michigan, remains to be seen.
"I don't have anyone in mind (yet)," Lawson said. "I will tell you that I thought Chanda did an exceptional job. The fact that Cal is the second-place team in the Pac-10 and second to only Arizona State (says a lot). She basically shut them down.
"I am going to wake up tomorrow morning and see how she feels. Honestly, we feel very comfortable with Riley and I think that Riley can come in and keep us in the game. I also feel equally comfortable with (Ellen) Weaver and (Lauren) Cumbess. We will see how she feels. We are going to have to use more than one pitcher to get through the entire day tomorrow so the order that I use them in is kind of irrelevant. It's more if I can do a good enough job game planning to keep us in the game."
Record-setting crowd played a positive factor
When the gates finally opened, hundreds of them -- some of them painted up -- spilled into the facility to get a prime seat. The facility was just about full 30 minutes before the game, and by the time Henderson fired a first-pitch ball, a record-setting 1,717 fans had crammed into what was once one of the smallest ballparks in the Southeastern Conference.
"It was crazy," Yocke said. "We were in the bullpen and the rest of the team came out from hitting and everyone started cheering. Chanda and I just smiled and said, 'This is insane.' The cool thing is about it, I think, is that Cal has no idea what this feels like for us. They are probably used to playing in big atmospheres. I have seen their stadium and I'm sure they fill it up all the time. It's a neat thing and one that all of us are trying to take in and enjoy."
Kentucky installed temporary bleachers in left field, right field and along the third-base line to accommodate an unprecedented demand. By Tuesday morning, tickets for both days of the Super Regional were sold out, creating an intimate, big-time feel at Saturday's game.
"I have never been to the World Series but I would imagine this would be a close second," Echavarria said.
The Cats soaked in the atmosphere and appeared loose in warm-ups, but Lawson said her team's pregame attitude and approach was no different from any other game.
"We always play that way," Lawson said. "That is how we practice and how we do everything. I think that the crowd was great. I think that it helped us. If anything, I think that it helped us in the situations where we did make a mistake and they had runners on and I think the crowd really helped Chanda stay in the game and helped put pressure on their hitters. ... The crowd was a big plus for us today."