Preview | Softball heads north for a top-10, SEC showdown

Kentucky is a high-ranking opponent, but the team’s strength of schedule can definitely be called into question.

Robert Cortez, Staff Reporter

A big road trip looms ahead for No. 3/4 Alabama softball (25-2; 5-1 SEC). The team will head to Lexington, Kentucky, this weekend for a top-10 conference series against the No. 7/7 Kentucky Wildcats (23-3; 1-2 SEC). The series finale will be televised at primetime on Monday at 6 p.m. via the SEC Network. 

“It will be like a super regional, and we’re looking forward to it,” head coach Patrick Murphy said. 

Going into the series, the narrative has a heavy focus on Alabama pitchers Montana Fouts (9-2; 1.18 ERA), a junior, and Lexi Kilfoyl (10-0; .45 ERA), a sophomore. The pressure will be on for the pair as they face a dynamic Kentucky offense that leads the conference in almost every major offensive category. Among Kentucky’s biggest bright spots are the team’s batting average, on-base percentage and RBIs.

“Kentucky’s just having a really good year offensively,” Murphy said. “They keep putting up great numbers year after year.”

But there’s a chance that these offensive numbers are inflated. Kentucky’s highest-ranked non-conference opponent is Illinois State, which ranks at only No. 58 in RPI.

The rating percentage index, RPI, takes into account a team’s record, strength of schedule and how its opponents have fared. Kentucky currently sits at No. 28, while Alabama is No. 1. Kentucky has only played one conference series this season, and in its three games against the No. 5/5 Florida Gators, Kentucky was held to a single run in two games.

The Kentucky offense is led by Kayla Kowalik and Lauren Johnson. Both Kowalik and Johnson carry above a .425 average and stole 18 of the team’s 33 stolen bases. But Alabama’s Bailey Hemphill, a graduate student, could find chances to throw out Kowalik and Johnson, especially if the Wildcats struggle to produce offensively. A slow offensive start could force Kentucky to put Kowalik and Johnson in motion, and Hemphill has thrown out five of eight attempted base stealers this season. One need only look back at last weekend to find an example of Hemphill catching base bandits in action—Tennessee’s Kiki Miloy was perfect on the season in stealing bases until she came up against Hemphill.

“I think she’s [Hemphill] is very underrated as a catcher,” Murphy said. “She’s as good as anybody right now.” 

The Alabama offense will go against a veteran Kentucky pitching staff with fifth year Autumn Humes (10-2; 1.92 ERA) and senior Grace Baalman (4-1; 3.05 ERA). Both Humes and Baalman are not lights out in the circle. Their opponents’ batting average is over .200 and each has allotted double-digit walks. 

Alabama will be without freshman Bailey Dowling in the starting lineup. She suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Saturday’s contest against Tennessee, which will end her season. Murphy said that there has been an outpouring of well wishes in the past few days and that Dowling viewing the game from the sideline can help her develop into a better athlete. 

Dowling has received an avalanche of well wishes this week, Murphy said, and the time off the diamond will give her a chance to get a bird’s-eye perspective on her team.

“She’ll [Dowling] see the game from a different side and will learn a lot about herself and teammates,” Murphy said. “She’ll see things that she’s never seen before.”

For Fouts and senior Kaylee Tow, the road trip to the Bluegrass State holds “excitement” because it is their home state. Murphy noted in Tuesday’s press conference that Tow grew up as a “big blue fan.” 

The series begins on Saturday at 1 p.m. and will be televised on the SEC Network+. Game two will be aired on ESPN2 at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.