Nunley Grinds Way to Sunday Series Clincher

It was a battle all weekend for Kentucky’s pitchers against a potent Missouri offense.

In Sunday’s rubber match, the Wildcats turned to their ace to grind out a series victory.

“I have a lot of faith in her all the time,” Rachel Lawson said. “We’ve been doing this together for so long hopefully we’re on the same page. ... So I think we have a pretty good rhythm going and because of that it’s a very comfortable situation putting the ball in her hands and letting her take the team.”

Even the usually dominant Nunley – with her 1.09 earned-run average entering the game – couldn’t completely shut down the Tigers, but she did enough to pitch (and hit) No. 12 UK (37-9, 13-5 Southeastern Conference to a 3-2 victory over visiting and 18th-ranked Missouri (29-12, 6-9 SEC).

“Wow,” Nunley said. “They’re really good and we had to constantly mix it up with them because they learn each at-bat. We just really had to try and keep them off balance the whole time, the whole series.”

Nunley pitched a complete game, allowing only two runs in spite of yielding eight hits and four walks. At least one runner reached base in every inning including the first two of the seventh. She escaped the jam by retiring the final three batters, including the last on a ground ball she leaped to snare and throw to first base.

“I’m not going to say it was her best game today, but I think some of that had to do with Missouri. I think Missouri’s offense is tremendous,” Lawson said. “I think they’re one of the best in the league, so they did a great job getting people on base. But I think Kelsey should feel great about the fact that when there were people on base she had extreme focus, she put the ball where she wanted to and she just really let the defense work behind her.”

Nunley wasn’t content just pitching and fielding though. With one out and the bases loaded with UK trailing 2-1 in the fourth inning, Nunley came in to pinch hit. She delivered a game-tying sacrifice fly for her ninth RBI of the season, more than double her total from her first three years combined.

“She’s just such a competitor,” Lawson said. “She has a pretty swing and she’s a very natural athlete and I think it’s hard when you watch her in the cages and you watch her play a sport, it’s hard to keep her off the field. I would like to use her offensively more than we do, but she has a more important job in the circle.”

After Nunley tied the game, it was UK’s usual suspect that provided the game-winning blast. Abbey Cheek smashed a solo home run in the top of the sixth to provide the final difference, her fourth of the week and third to hit the video board in left field.

“I’ve never seen them hit the scoreboard the way that they hit the scoreboard,” Lawson said. “Today almost went over the top of it and I was hoping she’d hit one of the letters in ‘WILDCATS’ so she’d put a dent in it and we’d have her signature on the scoreboard forever.”

Nunley would take it from there.

The victory was Nunley’s second of the series, coming two nights after she allowed three runs over six innings on Friday night. The series continued a trend in SEC play, as Nunley has typically pitched on Fridays and Sundays with a Saturday break in between.

It’s a heavier load than Nunley carried in nonconference play, orchestrated by Lawson with the idea of keeping her star senior fresh for the season’s stretch run. Nunley has thrown only 122.2 innings this season after throwing a combined 762 innings over her first three seasons.

“I’m trying to keep an eye on how many games she’s thrown prior to the postseason and at the same time we’re trying to develop the rest of our pitching staff for this year,” Lawson said. “I think it’s important that we have a complete staff going into the postseason. I think that’s the thing we’ve learned since 2014: that the team that’s going to end up in the championship day in the World Series is going to have a deep staff.”

The approach seems to be working. Meagan Prince has developed into a second ace and Nunley is on pace to set career highs in ERA, batting average against and strikeout rate.

“I feel good,” Nunley said. “I’m ready to go. I’m really proud of the rest of our staff and what they’ve done.”

The lessons learned in that 2014 Women’s College World Series run might just pave the way for another in 2016.