Karlie Keeney embraced Caroline Hudson, tapped the top of Hudson’s helmet, and couldn’t help but laugh as she returned to the dugout before the bottom of the ninth inning began Wednesday night. Through all of the tension of a tied game, what exactly got Keeney to flash a smile before Hudson stepped to the plate?
“She told me to be patient, don’t try too hard, and I told her, ‘Karlie, I’ve just been swinging hard this game, so I’m just going to keep doing it,’” Hudson said as she broke into laughter.
The Liberty freshman catcher, mired in what feels like a season-long slump, swung hard again. And for the second time Wednesday night, she didn’t miss.
Hudson sent the game into extra innings with a three-run home run in the seventh inning, and she delivered again with a two-run, walk-off homer in the ninth as Liberty’s offense woke up late in a dramatic 5-3 victory over 20th-ranked Virginia Tech at Liberty Softball Stadium.
“It was pretty clear it was going to go over. It was just awesome,” Keeney said of Hudson’s walk-off homer that hit the scoreboard in left-center field. “There was a lot of excitement. She came up really big for us tonight.”
Hudson entered the game hitting .197 with no home runs, and she did not record a hit in her first two at-bats against Tech starter Keeley Rochard.
The Flames (34-12) got two on with one out in the seventh to set the table for Hudson. Rochard’s 1-1 pitch caught enough of the zone for Hudson to easily connect and send the offering over the wall in left-center field.
The homer ended Rochard’s bid for her 12th shutout of the season and rekindled memories of how Saturday’s game against Notre Dame ended.
In that matchup, Rochard surrendered the game-tying homer in the seventh before giving up the go-ahead homer in the ninth.
Wednesday night, Rochard (20-7) fell behind 2-1 to Hudson in the ninth inning and had to throw a fastball — her 143rd pitch — down the middle of the plate. That’s when Hudson’s hard swing caught all of it.
“Keely got behind and she has to groove one. When you’ve got to throw pitches down the middle, Division I hitters should be able to hit them,” Tech coach Pete D’Amour said. “I don’t care if you’re throwing 68 or 58, if you’re 2-0, 3-1, hitter’s counts, you’ve got to be able to put good swings on the ball. They did that at the end of the game.”
Rochard struck out 11 and was in control through the first six innings, even in the fourth when the Flames loaded the bases with no outs. The junior right-hander struck out the next two batters and snagged a line drive back to her to keep the shutout intact at that point.
“She got her strikeouts and she’s going to get them,” Liberty coach Dot Richardson said of Rochard. “The key is the adjustments our hitters had to make.”
The Flames rattled off eight hits and drew three walks against the Hokies’ ace. D’Amour briefly considered lifting Rochard in the ninth inning, but elected to keep her in the circle.
“They started taking pitches. Keely got less sharp as the game went on,” D’Amour said. “I probably should have taken her out, but a pitch here and there in the seventh inning and it’s a different game. She’s our stud, and I just went with her.”
Keeney (13-4) was brought in out of the bullpen with the Hokies (28-12) leading 3-0 with one out in the third inning. Flames starter Emily Kirby had to work out of a jam in the first, couldn’t find the strike zone in the second when she surrendered a two-run homer to Mackenzie Lawter, and then gave up a no-doubt solo homer to Alexa Milius in the third.
Keeney came in and scattered three hits, walked one and struck out three.
“I was just trying to really stay down in the zone, stay off the plate and get them to hit my stuff,” Keeney said.
“It sounds weird, but she didn’t throw many strikes. She threw it at the knees and we swung at it,” D’Amour said of Keeney. “I thought she did a good job of not giving us much to hit. When we did swing, we pounded the ball on the ground. She did a good job. She did exactly what she wanted to do: she threw it at the knees and got a bunch of ground balls.”
Keeney had to work out of a one-out jam in the eighth inning with Tech’s best baserunners in scoring position (Kelsey Brown and Cameron Fagan).
Jayme Bailey hit a sharp ground ball to third baseman Devyn Howard, who initially attempted to tag Brown out but threw to Hudson at home for the force out.
“It was a contact play. We preach that all the time — there’s one place you can’t hit it when Kelsey Brown’s on third base, and it’s third base. That’s a big play,” D’Amour said. “Our top of the lineup is what drives us, and we had to wait a couple more innings to get those kids up. That was kind of the play for me. It was that ground ball to third base.”
Kelsey Bennett grounded out to Keeney on the next pitch to keep the score tied at 3.
“That was a great play, an awesome heads-up play for [Howard] because she looked to tag [Brown] but she was already past her, so it was awesome for her to make a good throw on that,” Hudson said.
Brown went 3 for 4 and was the only player besides Liberty’s Hudson and Kara Canetto (2 for 4) with a multi-hit game.