Kentucky, playing in the NCAA Eugene Super Regional for the second consecutive year, looked right at home Thursday at Jane Sanders Stadium.
Perhaps the only thing that could have made the Wildcats more comfortable in the uncharacteristically visitor-friendly confines would be replacing the artificial turf with bluegrass.
Top-seeded Oregon allowed three home runs and committed four errors during a 9-6 loss to No. 16 Kentucky to begin the best-of-three series.
“Having been here helps,” said Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson, whose team outscored the opposition 28-1 in the regional after a 10th-place finish in the rugged SEC. “We’re always the underdog, we like the underdog role. … When you’re playing the No. 1 seed, you’re playing with house money.”
The Ducks (50-8), who were on a 16-game winning streak and 22-1 at home entering the super regional, will try to stave off elimination against the Wildcats (35-19) on Friday (8 p.m., ESPN2).
“Sure we had a bad game, but if we want to be a national champion and be the number one team in the country, we need to come back from this,” Oregon coach Mike White said. “Plenty of teams have done it before. We need to be fired up and come out and play a better game.”
Oregon ace Megan Kleist (21-6), who pitched a one-hit shutout against Drake in her only appearance of the regional round, allowed seven runs (six earned) on seven hits with three strikeouts and a walk over 4 2/3 innings. The junior’s earned-run average went from 0.92 to 1.34.
Kentucky's Alex Martens crushed a three-run shot to right center in the top of the first inning to set the tone for the evening.
The Ducks had allowed a total of five runs in the first inning all season before facing the early 3-0 deficit.
“If you look at it, we were ahead (in the count) quite a bit,” White said of the Ducks’ rough night in the circle. “Megan was doing a good job getting ahead, and there were some pretty marginal calls there that could have gone either way that we didn’t get. I think sometimes maybe you start over-adjusting, you start bringing the ball up, you make mistakes and it compounds a little bit.”
Abbey Cheek hit two towering home runs, a three-run shot off Kleist in the fourth and a two-run shot off Maggie Balint in the sixth.
Kleist started the game with a strikeout before an infield hit by Katie Reed bounced just out of the reach of third baseman Jenna Lilley and off the glove of shortstop DJ Sanders. Cheek walked before Martens’ deep fly.
“Last year we came here and faced all three of their pitchers,” Cheek said. The Wildcats lost 4-0 and 6-5 in last year’s super regional. “That was an advantage for our lineup.”
In the second, Kentucky starter Erin Rethlake reached on a two-base error by her pitching counterpart. A two-out RBI single by Reed made the score 4-0.
Svekis brought the stunned crowd back to life with a solo home run, her team-leading 17th, in the second.
The Ducks loaded the bases in the third after back-to-back bunt singles by Lilley and Alexis Mack. Shannon Rhodes drove in a run with a groundout, and Svekis brought home Lilley on a sacrifice fly to get Oregon within 4-3.
But after a pair of two-out singles in the fourth, Cheek’s first home run put the Wildcats back in control with a 7-3 cushion.
“We got punched over pretty good right here,” White said.
Oregon readjusted the rally caps, and true freshman Lauren Burke, who hit home runs in her first two postseason appearances as a pinch-hitter, came off the bench an delivered an RBI single in the fourth.
Sanders appeared to be tagged out at the plate by Kentucky catcher Jenna Schaper, but home plate umpire David Erwin ruled her safe on the wild pitch, which got the Ducks within 7-5.
Lilley saved another run, at least temporarily, by snagging a line drive off the bat of Reed in the sixth. Then Cheek’s second home run extended Kentucky’s lead to 9-5.
“I don’t want to play around,” Lawson said of having two opportunities to win another game at the Jane to clinch a spot in the Women’s College World Series. “We have to go at this game (Friday) like it’s going to be our last game.”
Haley Cruse made an out to begin the bottom of the sixth but was given a second life because of an inaccurate lineup infraction called against Kentucky. The sophomore right fielder promptly singled to left and scored on a double by Sanders to make the score 9-6.
Autumn Humes sat the top of Oregon’s order down in order to end the game.
“They came out aggressive, and I think we came out a little complacent and expecting to win,” Cruse said. “We can beat this team, but they came out firing and we need to come out firing (Friday) because they’re going to put up a battle. It’s going to be a dogfight to the end.”