No. 17 LSU travels to No. 14 Kentucky with greater emphasis on a fast start in the series

LSU senior center fielder Aliyah Andrews leads the Tigers in hitting (.366) and stolen bases (22 of 24). Photo by: LSU Athletics.

LSU softball coach Beth Torina commended her team’s ability to respond to opening-game losses and win its last two series on the road at No. 20 Missouri and North Carolina State.

“I loved the way we fought until the end,” Torina said Thursday on ESPN’s 104.5-FM ‘Off The Bench’ show. “I loved how they just came out swinging on that second day. N.C. State was an interesting place to play. I don’t know if I’ve ever played in a ballpark that small in all of my life. It was tiny and the ball was flying around that place. It was a fun trip and I thought we played well toward the end and hopefully we can keep that going into this weekend.”

LSU has mercifully arrived at the end of a season-high nine-game road trip when the No. 17 Tigers (26-14, 8-7) travel to No. 14 Kentucky (31-10, 6-9) for a three-game Southeastern Conference series that begins at 5 p.m. Friday.

The series continues Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. with both games scheduled to be televised by ESPN2.

Torina said the emphasis in this week’s practice and game plan focused on the first game of a series in which LSU is 2-5.

“That’s the big goal we have for game one,” she said. “Focus more on our process, on LSU softball. We always try to do that and make sure we’re playing LSU softball first and we’re thinking less about our opponent. Do the things we want to do and attack the (strike) zone the way we want, both on offensive side and the pitching side.”

LSU, which closes the regular season at home with consecutive series with Arkansas and Auburn, has won eight of its last 11 games. The Tigers enter the game in sixth place in the SEC standings, ahead of the Wildcats who are tied for eighth, but have won eight of the last 10 times they’ve faced the Tigers.

“They’re always going to be well prepared and well coached,” Torina said. “Their coach (Rachel Lawson) is a good pitch-caller. If you have a weakness, she’s going to exploit it. They’re good on all sides of the ball. They’ll swing it, play good defense and pitch it well. It’s always a challenge when playing Kentucky.”

Kentucky won its first 19 games of the season before running into Florida, which took two of three games in their league series. The Wildcats, which did take two of three from Alabama, dropped two of three games last week to Auburn but was able to outlast arch-rival Louisville in a 6-5 victory on Thursday in nine innings.

Kentucky features one of the SEC’s top offenses that leads the league in total bases (650), slugging percentage (.583), on-base percentage (.421), RBIs (276) and is second in hits (391) and is tied for third in home runs (61).

Catcher Kayla Kowalik is riding a 21-game hitting streak and leads Kentucky in batting with a .534 average with 11 homers, 34 RBIs and 17 of 18 stolen bases. Left fielder Renee Abernathy is second at .375 with nine homers and 34 RBIs, center fielder Tatum Spangler (.379, 16 RBIs), shortstop Erin Goffel (.377, 16 49 RBIs) and right fielder Lauren Johnson (.368, 36 RBIs).

Senior Autumn Humes (15-5, 2.27 ERA, 93 Ks, 111 IP) is the Wildcats top pitcher.

“I think we’re going to matchup well,” Torina said. “Kentucky has a lot of good numbers, but they haven’t played the schedule that we’ve played. I don’t think they’ve been tested week in and week out the way we’ve been tested and that’s not to say they’re not going to be good. We’re going to try and keep them off balance as best we can, do our homework and be prepared.”

Senior center fielder Aliyah Andrews is 22nd in the SEC in hitting (.366) and is second in stolen bases with 22 in 24 attempts followed by freshman left fielder Ciara Briggs (.333, 4 HRs, 14 RBI, 9 SBs), freshman first baseman/outfielder Raeleen Gutierrez (.310, 2 HRs, 11) – the reigning SEC Newcomer of the Week – and freshman shortstop Taylor Pleasants (.307, 8 HRs, 37 RBIs).

Sophomore pitcher Ali Kilponen ranks in the top 10 in the SEC in three categories: wins (11-5), strikeouts (88) and ERA (1.66).

“I’d love for us to be a little more prepared in game one,” Torina said. “I’d love for us to perform a little better.”

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