COLLEGE STATION, Texas - A six-run outburst for Alabama in the second inning proved enough to hold off a resilient Kentucky squad in the 6-3 victory, sending the Crimson Tide to the SEC Tournament Championship game Saturday at 7 p.m. CT against Florida on ESPN2.
Alabama (52-6) surged ahead early with a six-run second inning, including a big three-run double from sophomore KB Sides, part of a 2-for-3 day at the plate. Kentucky (33-22) chipped away at the deficit, scoring three runs over the next four innings. With the score 6-3 in the top of the seventh, the Wildcats brought the potential tying run to the plate but could not score as the Tide ultimately held on for the three-run victory.
"Something we talked about all season really was not letting anyone beat us on our home turf," said Sides, citing the earlier series loss to Kentucky in Tuscaloosa. "Playing them today was definitely big for us to come out on top. We scored six in the second inning and that set the tone for the whole game."
The win sends Alabama to its eighth SEC Tournament Championship game, facing sixth-seeded Florida Saturday evening. The Tide owns five tournament titles, winning in 1998, 2003, 2005, 2010 and 2012. Three of the Tide's title game appearances have come against the Gators, falling in 2008 and 2009 before defeating Florida in 2012 in Tuscaloosa.
Junior Sarah Cornell (21-1) earned the win in the circle, throwing 5.2 innings in the start with junior Krystal Goodman backing her up with 1.1 shutout innings for her first save of the season.
Sophomore Kaylee Tow lined one back up the middle to lead off the bottom of the second, tallying the first hit for either team. Sophomore Maddie Morgan drew a walk two batters later before senior Reagan Dykes sent one back up the middle to load the bases as the Kentucky second baseman knocked it down to keep the ball in the infield. Coming off a three-walk game yesterday, junior Claire Jenkins drew a four-pitch walk to move everyone up 60 feet and put the Tide in front 1-0.
That run forced an early hook for the UK starter as Larissa Spellman stepped in the circle in the early tough spot. Senior Caroline Hardy, in as a pinch hitter, dropped a single into shallow left to drive in a run and Sides backed her up with a double in the gap. Two runs came home and the third was initially called out at home but the call was reviewed and ultimately overturned as it became a three-run double for Sides, who advanced to third on the throw. A walk to junior Bailey Hemphill put runners at the corners and a throw home on a ground ball in the next at-bat was unsuccessful as the RBI fielder's choice swelled the lead to 6-0.
A walk to Tow in her second at-bat of the inning loaded the bases yet again and the Wildcats made its second pitching change, turning to junior Autumn Humes who induced a force out at home and a fly ball to end the big inning with the Tide leading by six.
Lauren Johnson beat out a slow-rolling infield single to lead off the top of the third, Kentucky's first hit of the day, and Humes followed with a double down the line to put two in scoring position. Two batters later, Jenny Schaper knocked a dribbler up the middle to score a run and put runners on the corners with one out. A force out at second went for out number two and after a long battle at the plate, Cornell caught SEC Player of the Year Abbey Cheek looking at strike three to end the inning and limit the damage as it was a 6-1 game halfway through the third.
For the second-straight inning, Kentucky got its first two batters on base in the top of the fourth to put runners at the corners. A deep fly ball allowed the runner at third to tag up and score on the sacrifice fly but another fly ball and a groundout kept the Wildcats from drawing any closer than four runs.
With the score still 6-2 in the top of the sixth, Kentucky put a pair on base with one out and, after a popup for out number two, a single up the middle scored a run to make it a three-run game. Goodman entered to pitch in the save situation with the potential tying run at the plate and caught her swinging to send the game to the bottom of the sixth at 6-3.
Alabama couldn't add to its three-run lead in the sixth inning, giving the Wildcats three outs to overcome the three-run deficit. Kentucky drew back-to-back walks to start the seventh but three-straight outs extinguished the rally as the Tide held on for the 6-3 win.
Alabama faces Florida in the SEC Tournament Championship on Saturday, May 11 at 7 p.m. CT on ESPN2.