No. 12 Softball Returns to SEC Play, Travels to No. 9 Auburn

*** UPDATE: Due to heavy rain expected late Saturday night into Sunday in the Auburn, Ala., area, Kentucky and Auburn will now play a doubleheader on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. ET. ***

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Looking to continue its season-best, eight-game winning streak in the middle of playing nine games in nine days, the No. 12 University of Kentucky softball team returns to Southeastern Conference action this weekend when it travels to face No. 9 Auburn in a three-game series at Jane B. Moore Field starting Friday.

The three-game series starts at 7 p.m. ET on Friday before a 7 p.m. ET first pitch on Saturday and 2 p.m. ET series finale Sunday. All three games will be available on the SEC Network+ through WatchESPN. Live stats will also be available at UKathletics.com.

Kentucky (21-5) is coming off three non-conference midweek victories, starting with a doubleheader sweep at Murray State on Tuesday before taking down border-state rival Indiana on Wednesday at John Cropp Stadium. The three wins increased UK's season-best winning streak to eight games, which ties the third longest winning stretch in program history. The eight-game stretch is the eighth winning streak in program history of eight or more games with seven of those winning streaks coming under eight-year head coach Rachel Lawson. The streak started when Kentucky defeated highly ranked Texas A&M in the finale of a three-game series the first week of March.

The streak comes at a challenging time for the Wildcats as UK is in the middle of playing nine games in nine days with five of those games coming on the road. The stretch started when Kentucky swept a three-game series against 2014 Mid-American Conference Champions Ohio last weekend at John Cropp Stadium before the three midweek battles Tuesday and Wednesday. The three-game series at Auburn concludes the difficult stretch with the Wildcats having no midweek games next week before No. 1 LSU comes to John Cropp Stadium on March 27-29.

Overall, Kentucky's schedule is one of the toughest in the conference, including a 19-game road trip to start the season, which was the second longest in the SEC this season. The Wildcats started conference play at top-20 ranked Texas A&M with this weekend's series at Auburn marking its second straight conference road series to start league play. UK is the only team in the conference to face a top-20 ranked conference opponent on the road in each of its first two weekends of league play.

The Wildcats have played seven games against ranked foes this year with a 3-4 record, besting then-No. 5 Florida State, then-No. 10 Arizona and most recently No. 20 Texas A&M. UK has 21 games remaining this season against teams either ranked or receiving votes in either poll, including three-game sets with No. 1/1 LSU, No. 2/3 Florida, No. 4/5 Alabama, No. 8/8 Georgia, No. 9/11 Auburn, No. 14/19 Tennessee and South Carolina, who is receiving votes in both polls.

Freshman pitcher Erin Rethlake was impressive in just her third start of the season against Indiana on Wednesday, tossing her first complete-game effort with only one earned run allowed and a career-high tying four strikeouts and no walks. The native of Huntington, Ind. - throwing against her home-state school - allowed seven hits in the game, including three in the first inning before settling down to get the win.

Junior utility player Maisie Steed and junior infielder Christian Stokes had been swinging hot bats the past 10 games for Kentucky. Steed is hitting .400 (10-for-25) during that stretch with two doubles, four homers and 10 RBI, while Stokes is hitting .382 (13-for-34) with eight runs scored, one double, one triple, three homers and four RBI. Steed has been on a hot streak the past few weeks with a hit in 15 of her last 20 games, including a home run in four of her last eight games. Last weekend in the three-game series vs. Ohio, Steed hit .556 with five hits, two doubles, two homers and eight RBI. Stokes hit .583 in that series with one triple, one homer and two RBI.

Stokes leads Kentucky with a .356 (31-for-87) average, adding a team-best six home runs with 18 RBI, while Steed is second on the team with a .350 (21-for-60) average with four homers and three doubles. Junior Sylver Samuel is hitting .333 (28-for-84) with a triple and team-best 14 stolen bases, while senior catcher Griffin Joiner is hitting .315 (23-for-73) with five doubles, five homers and a team-best 28 RBI.

Junior pitcher Kelsey Nunley paces Kentucky with a 9-2 record and 1.67 ERA in 71.1 innings pitched with 65 strikeouts, while sophomore Meagan Prince is 8-3 with a 2.77 ERA in 60.2 innings pitched. The victory over IU moved Rethlake to 3-0 on the season with a 0.76 ERA in 27.2 innings pitched and 21 strikeouts.

After earning a top-10 national ranking for the first time in program history this week, Auburn enters its second SEC weekend of the season with a 29-2 record, including a perfect 17-0 mark at home and 12-2 record away from Moore Field. AU is ranked No. 9 in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 and No. 11 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25.

The Tigers have eye-popping offensive numbers overall, hitting .387 as a team with 291 runs scored, including 64 home runs and 268 RBI. As a team, AU is slugging at .716 with a .502 on-base percentage and 18 stolen bases. The Tigers rank second in the nation in batting average, home runs per game, on-base percentage, scoring and slugging percentage, while three AU players rank top-10 in the nation in home runs.

Junior outfielder Tiffany Howard leads the team with a .533 average, adding seven doubles, five triples and 15 RBI, while junior infielder Emily Carosone is hitting .482 with eight doubles, 13 homers and 47 RBI. Sophomore infielder Kasey Cooper is hitting .419 with 10 homers and 35 RBI, while junior infielder Jade Rhodes has a .400 average with 12 homers and 38 RBI.

In the circle, junior pitcher Rachael Walters is 10-0 with a 1.87 ERA in 63.2 innings pitched with 56 strikeouts, while junior Lexi Davis is 12-0 with a 2.35 ERA in 62.2 innings pitched with 60 strikeouts. Junior Marcy Harper is 7-2 this season with a 3.15 ERA in 46.2 innings pitched with 30 strikeouts.

Auburn leads the all-time series with Kentucky 31-17, including a 10-8 lead in the series during Lawson's tenure. This will be Kentucky's first trip to Auburn since winning two out of three games at Moore Field in 2012. Last year, the Tigers took two of three games at John Cropp Stadium. The two teams have met every year UK has had a program, except for 2013.

The two teams met last season at John Cropp Stadium for a three-game series in late March. Highly ranked Auburn won the first game of the series Friday night in a come-from-behind effort 7-6, before a full day of rain Saturday moved Sunday's scheduled to a doubleheader. The Tigers claimed the series in Sunday's first game, handing Kentucky a 6-4 loss. UK salvaged a game in the series finale, plating two runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to claim a 2-1 victory. Nunley went 1-1 in the series with a 2.50 ERA in 14 innings pitched and 18 strikeouts, while Prince was 0-1 with a 7.00 ERA in six innings pitched. Offensively, then-senior Lauren Cumbess had three hits and a home run, while fellow 2014 senior Emily Gaines had a home run and four RBI. Joiner and Samuel each had three hits, while Steed and Nikki Sagermann hit home runs.

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

Records
Kentucky 21-5
Auburn 29-2

Rankings
Kentucky - No. 13 in NFCA/USA Today Top 25; No. 12 in ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25
Auburn - No. 9 in NFCA/USA Today Top 25; No. 11 in ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25

Schedule/Results
Friday, March 19
Kentucky at Auburn - 7 p.m. ET - Live Stats - SEC Network+

Saturday, March 20
Kentucky at Auburn - 7 p.m. ET - Live Stats - SEC Network+

Sunday, March 21
Kentucky at Auburn - 2 p.m. ET - Live Stats - SEC Network+