By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — In 11 innings in the NCAA Regional, senior Erin Rethlake gave up just one run — and it was unearned.
She allowed three hits, walked two and struck out six to beat Illinois-Chicago 10-1 and Notre Dame 8-0 to help Kentucky advance to the Super Regional at No. 1 Oregon.
Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson told me three days before the regional started that Rethlake, who also starts at first base when she is not pitching, had become UK’s best pitcher and she more than justified her coach’s confidence.
“We were putting the bat on the ball early, but I thought we lost that momentum in the fourth and we never got it back,” Notre Dame coach Deanna Gumpf said. “She produced ground balls and that’s probably the most effective thing she did with us today. I thought we made really good contact. She did a great job of getting the ball on the ground and the defense behind her was spectacular.”
Notre Dame’s Ali Wester said Rethlake did a terrific job moving the ball around and kept it low to induce the ground balls.
Rethlake credited UK’s defense — which did not have an error — for much of her success in Sunday’s region title game.
“Coach Lawson obviously knows the pitch call. She scouts a crazy amount. So, today was just about trusting whatever she called, believing my stuff was good enough and relying on the defense to make plays behind me,” Rethlake said.
She got a text message from Lawson a few hours before the game telling her she would be the starter. Kentucky freshman Grace Baalman beat Notre Dame in Saturday’s winner’s bracket final that ended about midnight. Notre Dame came back Sunday to beat Michigan to get a second shot at UK.
“It was right before we warmed up, probably about an hour before we warmed up today,” Rethlake said.
“I’ve played a lot of first base this year which is really nice because my arm kind of feels fresh at this point. So, a lot of these girls like (Notre Dame’s Alexis) Holloway have thrown a lot of pitches, like just this weekend alone threw a ton of pitches and I feel good. I feel fresh. I’m ready to go. So, I mean being old is fine, but the younger girls have taken such a load this year that it’s been great.”
Lawson blamed himself for calling a “stupid changeup” that led to Notre Dame’s only hit Sunday.
“Erin would’ve had a no-hitter today had it not been for me. But moving forward, she’s going to have to do the same thing she did . She’s going to have to go out there, command her pitches, keep throwing hard and spinning it,” Lawson said.
“We didn’t have to make very many plays, but when there was a play to be made, we made it. I thought Katie Reed made some tough plays, Abby (Cheek) did. Brooklin (Hinz) made an amazing catch out in center field last night.
“So, when we had our opportunities, our team maximized that and the only run we gave up was just a slight miscue. To only give up one run in an entire regional says a lot about the defense and the pitching staff.”
Gumpf said UK hitters were patient at the plate against Holloway and made her pay for pitches grooved into the strike zone.
“When she had to bring it in the zone they were able to take advantage of it,” the Notre Dame coach said.
She had high praise for the UK offense which produced eight or more runs in all three games and ended each game early due to the run rule.
“I mean they’re very good. I think they’re prepared for the postseason. It’s tough because we’ve played really good lineups throughout the year. We played Florida State a few weeks ago,” the Notre Dame coach said. “I think a team that’s ranked in the top 16 or even top 20 you have to have you’re ‘A’ game and you have to get them to do what you want them to with the ball and we were not able to do that.”