Giving up home runs isn’t something any pitcher likes to do.
But as Autumn Humes watched a ball leave John Cropp Stadium off the bat of Northwestern shortstop Makenna Nelson — on the first ball she threw in the second inning — the Kentucky senior felt unusually calm.
“I was kind of nervous in the first inning, just got the jitters,” Humes said. “It’s the postseason, every game means more. Oddly enough after the home run was hit, I felt better. I know that doesn’t make sense ‘cause you think I’d feel more pressure, but I felt, I guess, more motivated to just go at the hitters and give ‘em my best pitches.”
Nikki Cuchran got a hit later in the inning, but UK got out of the top without further damage and took the lead for good in the bottom, scoring all three of its runs in a 3-2 victory to set up a meeting with the Notre Dame, a 3-2 winner against Miami (Ohio), at noon Saturday.
Renee Abernathy started the decisive frame with a lead-off single. Humes reached and Abernathy advanced on a fielder’s choice after a bunt by Humes put Northwestern in poor position for a fielder’s choice bid. They each advanced on a passed ball before scoring on a single from Rylea Smith, who would herself score on a fielder’s choice before a strikeout ended the second.
Humes was ruled safe at home due to obstruction by the catcher, a call that proved crucial by game’s end.
“Any time the ball is coming from the left side of the field, the catcher pretty much always has to obstruct to receive the ball,” UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. “Right away I knew that that was going to be an obstruction. Now, whether or not the umpire was going to call it is a whole other situation. It’s a big call, but I believe it was the right call.”
After giving up three hits through two frames, Humes surrendered just three more the rest of the way. Humes and her defense twice retired five straight batters down the stretch, the second streak snapped by Cuchran — who finished 3-for-3 on the day — with two outs in the seventh. Cuchran scored on a throwing error to give Northwestern some life, but a grounder by lead-off hitter Skyler Shellmyer sent the visiting Wildcats to the loser’s bracket.
Freshman shortstop Erin Coffel, a former top-10 recruit who’s among the nation’s leaders with 16 home runs this season, was responsible for errant toss, UK’s only miscue of the day.
“Of course, the ball always finds the freshman in their first game of the postseason, in the seventh inning,” Lawson said with a grin. “But it’s good that Erin’s going through this cause she’ll be better for it going forward I think.”
A crowd-pleasing double play preceded a bunt single by Shellmyer, the only hit by Northwestern’s best batter, in the top of the fifth. Shellmyer was stranded by a strikeout, but Kentucky couldn’t add any runs in the bottom; a called strike to end the frame drew ample boos.
The cheers and jeers were audible. Smith said it was a little intimidating to be playing in front of what was the largest and loudest crowd crowd in Lexington this season (940 were in attendance, officially). Capacity was limited to 50 percent, due to local guidelines, but it was the first UK sporting event this season at which masks were not required (they were still encouraged for immunocompromised people and those not vaccinated for COVID-19).
Humes, a fifth-year player whose original senior season was eventually canceled mid-stride due to the pandemic, briefly welled up with tears in a postgame Zoom session with reporters.
“I don’t even believe I have the words to say what it means to play another game on our field, especially after what happened last year, not being able to finish the season,” Humes said. “Just a wave of emotions that I had when I figured out that my season was over and that I might never pick up a ball again. It’s amazing, and I’m just so grateful to have another opportunity to play on that field out there in front of our fans.”
At UK’s John Cropp Stadium
Game 1: Kentucky 3, Northwestern 2
Game 2: Notre Dame 3, Miami (Ohio) 2
Game 3: Kentucky vs. Notre Dame, Noon
Game 4: Northwestern vs. Miami (Ohio), 2:30 p.m.
Game 5: Loser Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 5 p.m.
Game 6: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 5, Noon
Game 7: If necessary, 2:30 p.m.