Bailey Landry weaved through Tiger Park’s bullpen gate, shortened practice bat in hand, and toed the batter’s box opposite classmate Baylee Corbello.
LSU’s hitters, imbued with newfound confidence in the two weeks since getting swept by Florida, were engaged in a session against live pitchers about 15 minutes before practice Friday. Landry exchanged words with Corbello, who, along with her fellow pitchers, was helping her teammates prepare for Kelsey Nunley (13-4, 1.10 ERA) and the rest of Kentucky’s dominant pitching staff.
“Nunley won’t let you know what’s coming,” Corbello called across the bullpen.
No, the Tigers won’t be privy to Nunley’s pitch-by-pitch plan. But they’re more familiar with her than perhaps any other pitcher in a conference stocked with some of the nation’s best.
Nunley likely will be the opposing pitcher when No. 8 LSU opens its three-game series against the No. 16 Wildcats on ESPN at 2 p.m. Saturday in Tiger Park. If so, it will be the seventh time the Tigers (29-9, 5-7 Southeastern Conference) tangle with the senior right-hander.
“I’ve played against Kelsey Nunley for four years now, and every single year she has gotten better,” senior catcher Kellsi Kloss said. “She brings it in the mid-60s and locates the ball really well. She’s got good movement too, very effective and efficient.”
Nunley stifled red-hot LSU last season, earning a win and a save to hand the 31-1, No. 1-ranked Tigers their first series loss of year. Though Nunley took the loss when LSU salvaged a low-scoring Game 3, players haven’t forgotten the frigid, snow-riddled series in Lexington, Kentucky.
“That’s something that still kind of puts a bad taste in my mouth,” sophomore pitcher Carley Hoover said. “In that series, that wasn’t us. We’ll hopefully prove to them this weekend what we’re all about.”
Nunley finished that weekend giving up only two earned runs through 13.2 innings, her most dominant stretch against the Tigers. In six career appearances against LSU, the senior is 2-3 with a 2.57 ERA.
The SEC’s strikeout leader is the unquestioned ace for UK (31-8, 8-4), a player Tigers coach Beth Torina acknowledged has given her team “some trouble in the past.” But Nunley is only one half of the Wildcats’ veteran one-two punch in the circle.
Junior lefty Meagan Prince (14-2, 1.70 ERA) has logged six more starts than Nunley while displaying excellent command and a wicked breaking pitch.
“She throws a really good curveball, and her ball moves a lot,” Kloss said. “(She and Nunley have) two really different looks, but our coaches have prepared us really well for both of them.”
Kentucky’s pitching staff, whose 1.63 team ERA is tied for second-best in the league, is just another test for an LSU lineup hitting coach Howard Dobson claimed is finally “getting (its) head above water” in the rugged SEC.
After hitting .177 and stranding 25 baserunners against Florida, the Tigers said they’ve regained confidence at the plate by notching a series win at No. 10 Georgia and a midweek victory against Southern Miss. A bevy of hard-hit balls, even those resulting in outs, have convinced players and coaches they’ve escaped their midseason funk.
“Each of us is just taking one pitch at a time at the plate,” junior infielder/catcher Sahvanna Jaquish said. “We’re being in the moment with our at-bats and trying to make quality at-bats. Even if we get out, try to be a quality out.”
The Wildcats, meanwhile, are trending in the opposite direction.
An 8-1 start in conference play rocketed Kentucky up the polls and league standings, but No. 3 Auburn handed the Wildcats a sweep last weekend in Lexington. Kentucky’s offense, the SEC’s third-worst in batting average, scored more than one run only once in those three losses.
But the Wildcats may not need to light up the scoreboard if Nunley can frustrate LSU’s hitters like she has before. Kentucky’s Friday-night starter often appears in relief, meaning the Tigers will likely have several chances to bully Nunley for a change.
“Their ERA makes me feel better about ourselves, because Nunley always gives us fits. So it’s nice to know that she does that to everyone,” Torina said. “But she’s really talented. She’s a veteran and has been in this league a long time, so she understands how to win.”