LEXINGTON, Ky. - The No. 21 University of Kentucky softball hit five home r uns Saturday, including a two-homer game from true freshman Maisie Steed in game two, to claim both games of the doubleheader and clinch the Southeastern Conference series sweep over Mississippi State at the UK Softball Complex in Lexington, Ky. UK won game one 3-2 before the offense exploded for a 7-0 victory in the final game of the day.
Due to the threat of inclement weather moving into the Lexington area Sunday morning, the two teams agreed to play a doubleheader Saturday to ensure the series would be completed. Sunday's schedule has been canceled.
The series win over Mississippi State (20-9, 1-5 SEC) is the sixth for Kentucky in the all-time series, marking the fourth time in the last five years that UK has won the series against its SEC foe. The Bulldogs still lead the all-time series 27-19, while Kentucky leads the all-time series 13-11 in games played in Lexington. UK is 11-6 against Mississippi State under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson, including a 9-0 mark in Lexington.
Saturday's wins give Kentucky a winning record in conference action at 5-4, while the Wildcats sit 23-8 overall this season. Entering the series, Mississippi State had won 14 of its last 16 games - good for the third best start in school history - including a school-record 12 consecutive road wins. The Bulldogs are currently receiving votes in both the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 and USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25. UK started conference play by taking two of three games from Ole Miss.
The Wildcat offense was the difference in the weekend series, scoring 15 runs on 24 hits with two doubles and seven home runs against a MSU pitching staff that entered the weekend ranked 22nd nationally in earned-run average. Senior Alice O'Brien paced the Wildcats with a .500 (5-for-10) average with one double, two home runs and three runs batted in. Freshman Nikki Sagermann also hit .500 (4-for-8) in the series with a home run and two runs scored. The other four home runs came from sophomore catcher Griffin Joiner, who had a homer and two RBI, junior outfielder Emily Jolly, who nailed her first roundtripper of the year in the series finale, and the two-homer game from Steed.
True freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley was impressive in the series, going 2-0 and not allowing a run the entire weekend. Nunley pitched nine innings in relief Friday night to get the win before throwing a complete-game shutout in game two Saturday, allowing only two hits with seven strikeouts. Junior pitcher Lauren Cumbess went 1-0 on the weekend with a 2.62 ERA after earning a no-decision Friday night and a win in game one Saturday, allowing two runs on five hits over seven innings.
Joiner was key for the Wildcats behind the plate against MSU, posting a perfect fielding percentage while throwing out all five base runners that tried to steal. The talented backstop caught three batters stealing Friday night and two more Saturday in game one. For the season, Joiner has a .991 fielding percentage with 194 putouts, 18 assists and catching nearly 70 percent of base runners stealing.
The Wildcats took early leads in both games Saturday, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in game one behind the seventh home run of the season from Joiner. After two popups to start the inning, O'Brien ripped a single up the middle to extend the inning for Joiner, who took the first pitch she saw over the wall in leftfield to give UK the early lead.
The Bulldogs answered with a run in the top of the second inning, getting an RBI double from Briana Bell. The inning started with Logan Foulks singling up the middle before getting thrown out at second base trying to steal. Cumbess then hit Jessica Cooley with a pitch, who would come around and score when Bell filled a gap in right-centerfield. MSU could have score more in the inning had it not been for junior outfielder Kara Howard, who made an amazing diving catch on the track in leftfield. With a runner at second and one out, Erin Nesbit sent a deep line drive all the way to the track in leftfield with Howard making the catch right where the track meets the foul line. Howard then quickly got back on her feet and threw into second base to complete the double play.
The Wildcats added a much-needed insurance run in the fourth inning, getting the second home run of the season from Sagermann, who laced a two-out blast to left-centerfield. Mississippi State started a small rally in the top of the seventh, getting a leadoff double by Foulks, who came home to score on the single to leftifled by Nesbit. But Cumbess got a groundout to seal the win.
Steed single handedly put the Wildcats out in front in game two, launching a leadoff bomb to rightfield in the bottom of the first inning. The native of Powder Springs, Ga., then gave Kentucky a 3-0 lead in the third inning with a mammoth two-run homer just fair down the leftfield line after freshman Sylver Samuel reached on an error. After Steed's homer, O'Brien singled to leftfield, extending her hitting streak to a career-best five games.
UK tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the fourth inning. Sagermann started the rally with a one-out single up the middle before being out at second on a fielder's choice that allowed junior Krystal Smith to reach. Jolly then delivered her first home run of the season, hitting a laser over the wall in left-centerfield.
The Wildcats added two more insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth, getting an RBI single from Cumbess and a bases-loaded walk to junior pinch hitter Emily Gaines.
Kentucky will return to action with a pair of midweek road games next week. The Wildcats will travel to Western Kentucky University on Tuesday for an 8 p.m. ET first pitch before playing at Lipscomb on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET. UK will return home for its SEC bye weekend, however, the Wildcats will face highly ranked Tennessee on Friday, March 29 at 5 p.m. ET in a non-conference home game. The game was scheduled after both teams had games canceled earlier in the season due to inclement weather.
Kentucky will play host to the SEC Tournament this season for the first time in school history. The event, which is considered one of the most prestigious softball tournaments in the nation, will be May 8-11 in Lexington. The championship game will be featured on ESPN2, while all other games will be shown on ESPNU. Ticket information is available at UKathletics.com.