Kentucky's Lauren Cumbess executes
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kentucky will have to wait for another visit to find out what it feels like to have Friday off at the Women's College World Series.
Lauren Cumbess will never know. And that's just fine with the senior first baseman after she and sophomore ace Kelsey Nunley led No. 14 Kenutcky to a 4-1 win against No. 6 Louisiana-Lafayette in the SEC's school's first ever game in the Women's College World Series.
Friday off may sound like a college student's dream scenario, but it is the last thing any of them want here. Not that there aren't plenty of pleasant ways to pass an afternoon in Oklahoma's capital, but Friday is the day reserved for winners at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. The stadium is silent in the afternoon for the only time until the championship series, and the four teams that won on opening day play in a pair of night games. The survivors move to within one win of the best-of-three championship series. Historically speaking, it isn't a guaranteed spot in the final, but it's close.
Spending Friday in Oklahoma City without a game to play, on the other hand, is the athletic equivalent of a slow death. Looming is the task of winning four consecutive elimination games in two days. Or a trip home.
Kentucky wouldn't know.
It is difficult, or at least rare, to do what Kentucky did Thursday. It is the eighth school to make its World Series debut in the super regional era (since 2005). Only two of the first seven won their first game in the World Series, Tennessee in 2005 and Hawaii in 2010. One had Monica Abbott, the other had a lineup that set the NCAA single-season record for home runs. Kentucky had neither.
Wildcats coach Rachel Lawson said at one point in the middle of the third inning, leadoff hitter Christian Stokes looked at the full outfield bleachers from her place on deck and commented on how many people there were. Lawson suggested she might want to concentrate on the ball instead. But after winning two games in one day to eliminate third-seeded UCLA in a super regional in Los Angeles just to get to Oklahoma City, the Wildcats embraced the reality that this wasn't just another game. They enjoyed the experience.
"Between every inning I was looking around and taking mental pictures of what I saw because there were just so many people there," Cumbess said. "We've played in front of a lot of big crowds, but we haven't played in front of a crowd this big. I think between every inning I was looking around and taking it all in."
She kept herself pretty busy the rest of the time.
Cumbess put Kentucky in front with a two-out RBI double in the first inning, then extended the lead to 3-1 with a solo home run to lead off the top of the fourth inning. Louisiana-Lafayette ace Christina Hamilton, who mostly tamed Arizona a week earlier, left two pitches in the middle of the zone, and Cumbess made her pay for the mistakes.
Just for good measure, the player who ranks among the program's career home run leaders dropped down a bunt single in the top of the sixth that brought home the final run when the throw to first base ended up in right field (it hardly mattered that Cumbess was then thrown out trying to take second base on the play).
"That one was bunt-and-run, bunt for a hit," Cumbess said. "I haven't really done many of those, but that was a lot of fun."
The only run she didn't have a hand in was the go-ahead run in the second inning, Krystal Smith scoring on Ginny Carrroll's sacrifice fly after a leadoff double.
She didn't just soak in the scene, she helped shape it. Much as she and those who chose to believe helped shape a program.
Cumbess graduated from high school in the Chicago area in 2010. When she committed to play at Kentucky, she did so to a program that was barely relevant; the Wildcats didn't make their first NCAA tournament appearance until 2009 and perennially had a losing record before Lawson took over prior to the 2008 season.
"I really wanted to go somewhere where I felt like I could make a difference and help build a program," Cumbess said. "I felt like at Kentucky I could really do that. I knew that they were out recruiting and getting players who really wanted to do the same thing."
There were terrific players who came before the current group, stars like Molly Johnson and Brittany Cervantes. There was a pretty good pitcher, too. Chanda Bell finished her career with nearly twice as many strikeouts as any pitcher who preceded her in Lexington and more wins. She played her part in multiple super regional appearances. But in hindsight, something changed for the program when Kelsey Nunley arrived two years ago from Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee.
Kentucky still doesn't have an offense that puts up numbers at the same rate as its counterparts in Oklahoma City, but as Lawson noted, it is a better offense than any previous Kentucky pitcher had in support. That helps a pitcher. The offense staked her to an early lead Thursday and then reclaimed that lead when Louisiana-Lafayette's Lexie Elkins blasted one of the day's most impressive home runs to briefly tie the game 1-1 in the first inning. But that home run was the first and only hit Nunley allowed. She walked five, and on another day might have paid a price for that, but she didn't let the Ragin' Cajuns hit pitches she didn't want to throw and got plenty of support from her defense.
She has now thrown 11 complete games, 80 1/3 innings and more than 1,350 pitches in the past 22 days. She won elimination games against DePaul and UCLA and aced Thursday's test.
"I think the thing that makes Kelsey special is that she puts the ball exactly where she wants to," Lawson said. "She's able to command all four of the zones. She can go up, she can go down, she can go in and out. And I think because of that, she can game plan against specific batters, so she doesn't have to give the same look every single day. I think any time a pitcher can mix it up like that in all the zones and go offspeed, I think they're pretty tough to hit because it's hard for a hitter to sit on a pitch.
"I think that's why you're seeing Kelsey do such a good job in the postseason because she's able to adapt to the hitter's game plan and then she goes on the attack."
The moment could have been too big for the Wildcats, too much for a team that is more the sum of its parts than an individual show, Cumbess and Nunley notwithstanding. But there is a difference between being scared and nervous. And there wasn't any fear when Cumbess woke up on the biggest day of her softball life.
"My day was pretty chill." Cumbess said of the buildup to the third game on the schedule. "I had a huge breakfast, and I watched softball before we got here. Watching softball gets me ready to play softball, and I think you watch every time you play, anyway."
She is one of those who religiously watched these games on television as a kid. To prove her bona fides she rattles off names like Amanda Scarborough, Danielle Lawrie and Taryne Mowatt, whom she watched when she was a kid.
People have seen all but one of the teams in this season's field on televisions screens in seasons past. It's how programs earn brand names. When Lawson, who played in the 1992 World Series for Massachusetts a few months after Cumbess was born, came on a recruiting trip to Oklahoma City some years ago she stopped at the gift shop in the ASA Hall of Fame that shares the property with the stadium. Seeing shirts for programs like Alabama, Arizona and Oklahoma she said she told herself Kentucky would be among the choices one day.
Some of those kids who looked back when Cumbess looked out into the packed stands Thursday night probably went home with just those shirts.
Kentucky knew it would face one of the sport's iconic programs in Friday's second winners bracket game (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. ET); it just didn't know which one until No. 2 Alabama beat No. 7 Oklahoma 6-2 in a meeting of the past two national champions and the teams that played each other for that title two seasons ago.
And while Alabama knows its way around the World Series, that doesn't mean it's immune to the moment. Coaches, staff and half the roster celebrated that national championship in 2012, but Peyton Grantham was still in high school at the time. The freshman had an entirely human reaction when the team pulled into the facility.
"It was kind of overwhelming," Grantham said, "But it's like [Alabama coach Patrick Murphy] said, once you get on the field it's all the same. You focus on the game. And the people there, you don't notice them, It's been an awesome experience so far."
Hitting three-run home runs to erase deficits and flip momentum tend to make the experience more awesome. Continuing a postseason-long trend of big performances from freshmen on the roster, Grantham had the biggest hit, backed up by a two-run home run from Jadyn Spencer.
Alabama's freshmen have not faced Kentucky before. The teams didn't meet in the regular season or the conference tournament. In fact, even Kentucky's seniors aren't overly familiar with Crimson Tide ace Jaclyn Traina, who was fantastic Thursday after giving up a first-inning home run to Shelby Pendley. Because of a variety of issues, including the tornado that forced the cancelation of a 2011 series between the teams, Kentucky has seen just 22 2/3 innings of Traina in four seasons.