Notebook: Emily Gaines hits hot streak
Kentucky senior Emily Gaines reached base in all five of her team's games this past week, extending a streak that now stands at 18 consecutive games and that began with a pinch-hit grand slam against Kent State on March 21.
It's an impressive streak and one that plays no small role in Kentucky's 17-4 record in those games. Such cause and effect is true both directly, a walk-off three-run home run against Texas A&M a week ago, and indirectly, as in the pressure she placed on Mississippi pitchers by reaching base 10 times in this past weekend's three-game sweep.
But as streaks go, this one still has a long way to go to earn top billing in Bluegrass State softball lore.
As a high schooler in London, Ky., a small town about an hour south of Lexington, Gaines hit safely in 52 consecutive games, a streak that stretched from her junior season through the state playoffs her senior season. Only former University of Alabama All-American Kayla Braud is credited with a longer prep streak (an almost inconceivable 103 games).
Softball might not have quite the same hold on hearts and minds in Kentucky as horse racing and basketball, but people notice when one of their own does something extraordinary -- especially when she also signs to play for the big school in Lexington. Wildcats softball coach Rachel Lawson said she can't recall a press conference with the local media during the four years since in which she wasn't asked at some point asked about Gaines.
The answers come considerably less awkwardly these days.
The regular-season schedule includes just 11 more games for Kentucky, but it wasn't until this past Saturday that Gaines, until this season primarily a pinch hitter, recorded her 52nd career start, thereby matching the number that became so synonymous with her name in high school.
The local legend is Kentucky's best hitter this season statistically. It just took some time to get there.
"She loves to play softball," Lawson said. "She loves to be out on the field now. I think she's a real testament ... sometimes when things don't go players' ways, they have a tendency to hang it up or they have a tendency to transfer or just go a different direction. But Emily, she's a Kentucky kid, and she chose to stay the course.
"She's done everything the right way. She's given so much to the game, I think it has paid her back right now."
Gaines grew up in the heart of Big Blue Nation, emotionally as much as physically. Some smaller Division I and NAIA schools recruited her initially, but once Kentucky got involved, there wasn't any doubt in her mind where she would go. The catch is all those accolades -- and in addition to her hitting streak, Gaines was the state high school player of the year as a senior -- created unrealistic expectations for a player from a small high school in Kentucky entering one of the nation's two best college softball conferences.
"I think I put way too much pressure on myself coming in as a freshman because of all of that," Gaines said. "I think that's kind of why I didn't perform to my full potential maybe my freshman year. But I kind of had to just get over that and realize you're not just going to walk in and be a superstar. You have to work your way up."
The player who had more hits in high school than anyone else in state history went without a single one as a freshman. She saw a few more at-bats in each of the subsequent two seasons but finished her junior year with 18 career hits.
"At the end of the first couple of years, I thought she was going to quit for sure," Lawson said. "I didn't want her to, but a lot of times in D-I, and in college athletics, it comes down to playing time. And she wasn't getting the playing time that I know she had wanted and she had hoped for."
Suffice to say, both options occurred to Gaines.
"They were kind of in the back of my mind," she said. "I guess with anyone that would kind of be in the back of your mind. But I really wanted to stick it out, and I knew I could do it if I just stuck with it and worked harder and kept working. I'm a Kentucky girl, I've grown up in Kentucky, and it's just every little girl's dream to grow up and play for Kentucky.
"I wanted to stick with it and see what I could do."
Lawson said she saw a difference in Gaines in fall practice, a new confidence that carried through winter workouts and into the season. Be that as it may, the senior still spent the first three weeks of the season in a familiar role, pinch hitting if she appeared in the box score at all. Then she hit a two-out, walk-off home run, the first home run of her college career, to beat Eastern Kentucky in a start on March 1. She started once the following weekend in the team's first SEC series and all three games the weekend after that.
She hasn't been out of the starting lineup much since.
Gaines is a patient hitter -- her high school streak ended not with a bad day at the plate but one in which she walked three times and made an out in her one official at-bat. That isn't a mindset readily associated with pinch hitters. With one chance to make a difference, to help win the game and make an impression toward more playing time, there is an impetus to swing the bat. Now more secure in the knowledge she will have three or four plate appearances, Gaines leads the Wildcats with both a .427 batting average and a .574 on-base percentage. Despite the late start on home runs, she also leads the team with a .707 slugging percentage.
All of those numbers are the product of fewer plate appearance than some of her teammates, but each passing week lends them more and more credibility. And for a Wildcats team that is 10-5 in the SEC and in position for an NCAA tournament seed despite ranking 11th in the conference in on-base percentage and eighth in slugging, she has been a revelation.
A month from now, a month and a half if things go well for Kentucky, any streaks Gaines still has will end of their own accord. She has already been accepted into the master's program in speech and language pathology at Kentucky and hopes to eventually go back home to work with children in either an educational or health care setting.
She'd like to coach a little, too. She still loves the game, even if it didn't always seem to love her back the past few years.
"It's really taught me a lot, just about perseverance and working," Gaines said. "It's not always going to be perfect and great, but the bad times kind of make you appreciate the good times more. You can't let things get you down."
You can't let people get you out, either. And there are few tougher outs in the commonwealth of Kentucky these days than Gaines. Just as it used to be.
Players of the week
Tatum Edwards, Nebraska: The week didn't start well for Nebraska or Edwards after she went hitless in a home loss against supposed little sibling Nebraska-Omaha. Iowa was unlucky enough to be in the way when she took out her frustrations. Edwards had a good weekend in the first two games alone, played as a doubleheader Friday. She drove in five runs and hit two home runs across the two games and allowed just one earned run in the circle to win the opener. She wasn't done. She hit two more home runs and drove in eight runs in Saturday's finale. Don' t make her angry.
Lexie Elkins, Louisiana-Lafayette: South Alabama's pitching had flummoxed just about every lineup it faced this season. It didn't trouble Elkins. In addition to catching Christina Hamilton, she drove in six runs in the series and had at least two hits in each of the three games. That included home runs in each of the final two games, the last of them breaking a 1-1 tie. This is only a one-week honor, but it's at least worth mentioning the kind of run Elkins is on over the past two weeks. Adding in last week's series against Western Kentucky, she has 11 hits and 14 RBIs in her past six games.
Jennifer Gilbert, Ball State: Ball State's senior makes the list for the second week in a row, although considering she was not among 25 finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, perhaps people still aren't familiar with her. Gilbert hit four home runs this past week, including two against Purdue, and is now tied for 10th in NCAA history with 71 career home runs. A big week at the plate also boosted her slugging percentage to .973 and her OPS to 1.480. Her .819 career slugging percentage ranks sixth in NCAA history (excluding active non-seniors). Omitting her from the list of 25 finalists was egregious.
Kylee Lahners, Washington: How much does Washington depend on Lahners for its power? She has more home runs than any three teammates combined. The two most recent of those homers came in the finale against Stanford this past weekend to help fuel a run-rule win and clinch a must-have road series. Overall, she went 5-for-10 at the plate against the Cardinal with four RBIs and snapped a personal cold streak that ran through recent series against UCLA and Oregon.
Madison Shipman, Tennessee: When she was a freshman and hit five home runs in 58 appearances, Shipman was a player with power potential. Now she just has power. The senior shortstop continued a torrid final season with five home runs in four games this past week. That stretch included a series win at Texas A&M in which Tennessee lost the opener but rallied to score 20 runs in the final two games. Three of Shipman's four hits against the Aggies in College Station left the park, and that was on the heels of a pair of home runs in a midweek win against Tennessee Tech.
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