Kayla Kowalik’s first at-bat in Wednesday’s 7-4 victory over Louisville confused everybody at John Cropp Stadium.
The Cardinals had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, and Kowalik, who leads off for the 16th-ranked Wildcats, hit a beautiful single with a count of two balls, one strike. Then, oddly enough, the umpire called Kowalik back from first base. Another strike was added to the count, and the star catcher had to step up to the plate once more, hitting a single up the middle on her first attempt.
And, while the stands — and even the press box — didn’t have a clue as to what had happened, Kowalik knew exactly what she had done.
“Well, unfortunately I was out of the (batter’s) box,” Kowalik said. “And Coach (Rachel) Lawson was rooting for me, she’s like, ‘She’s never out of the box!’ Well, turns out I was, in fact, really out of the box. So I just had to do it all over again. I wish it would count for two hits, but unfortunately not.”
The NCAA rule states: “To be considered ‘within’ the space, the player…must not have any part of the foot extend beyond the outermost edge of the line.” And that an additional strike will be called if the offense breaks that rule.
Despite that sequence only counting as one hit for the team captain, Kowalik still had quite the night. She finished with two hits and a run in four at-bats.
Vanessa Nesby, Meeko Harrison and Rylea Smith each contributed two hits of their own to UK’s total of 12. Smith and Harrison also recorded three and two runs batted in, respectively.
But, for much of the game, the focus was on sophomore pitcher Alexia Lacatena, who earned her eighth win of the season in just her fifth start of the year.
After a difficult first inning where Lacatena walked two batters and allowed a run by Louisville center fielder Korbe Otis, she did not allow another run until the seventh inning.
Lacatena (8-2) said her teammates’ support provided confidence.
“When my team has my back, it makes me feel a lot more comfortable,” Lacatena said. “So it just gives me the confidence to just pitch and know that I don’t gotta worry about nothing because I got my team by my side.”
Her head coach had a lot to appreciate about Lacatena’s performance.
“I was really proud of her,” Lawson said. “Because we’ve asked her to really step up a role and do a couple of different things today. And she did everything that we asked her to do. She had a really good game, she spun the ball, she, you know, mixed speeds, she did a great job. Louisville’s a great hitting team. So the fact that she was able to do it tonight really says a lot about her growth this season.”
Lacatena threw 119 pitches before Sloan Gayan relieved her in the seventh following consecutive scoring plays that cut UK’s lead to 7-4. Gayan earned her first save of the season.
Wednesday’s victory completed a Wildcats season sweep of Louisville (22-10), with their first win arriving on opening day in Clearwater, Fla., during the 2023 NFCA Lead-Off Classic. The Cats defeated the Cardinals 8-0 in five innings on Feb. 10. And, while the team always loves a rivalry win, Wednesday’s was different. In February, 500 fans attended the game. On Wednesday in Lexington, 1,120 showed up.
“That means so much to us,” Lacatena said. “Big Blue Nation, you know, they got us. They’re here for us. And then, when you hear them cheering for you? And at the very end, when we get to do C-A-T-S with them? I mean, that’s just the best feeling in the world.”
After seven straight games at John Cropp Stadium, the Wildcats (21-7-1 overall, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) embark on a road trip that begins with a series at No. 10 Georgia (27-6, 7-1) starting Saturday. Kowalik believes that Wednesday’s victory will only help UK against the Bulldogs.
“A win definitely helps build the momentum going into this weekend,” Kowalik said. “Georgia is a really competitive team. And I think Louisville, in some aspects, you know, their speed and their running, kind of mimics Georgia a little bit. So, definitely excited to kind of have this as a warm-up before we get into this weekend.”
No. 16 Kentucky at No. 10 Georgia
When: 2 p.m.
TV: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Records: Kentucky 21-7-1 (4-2 SEC), Georgia 27-6 (7-1)
Series: Georgia leads 58-16
Last meeting: Kentucky won 3-0 on May 12, 2021, in the SEC Tournament at Tuscaloosa, Ala.