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Florida 3, Michigan 2: Lauren Haeger gives Gators a lead, and Delanie Gourley saves it

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Florida looked like it could blow open the first game of the WCWS championship series. By the end, the Gators just had to not blow it — and they didn't.

@GatorZoneSBall

Thanks to its best player, Florida had a 3-0 lead before its first game of a best-of-three Women's College World Series championship series was three innings old. It carried that lead into the sixth inning.

Then all hell broke loose.

And yet the Gators still won, by a 3-2 count, and now stand one win from a national title — thanks largely to Michigan's best player.

Lauren Haeger, starting as the designated player as Tim Walton rested his ace's arm, opened the scoring on the night with a two-run shot to left in the bottom of the first inning, then padded the Gators' lead with an RBI double that scored Nicole DeWitt from first in the third inning. And Florida loaded the bases in the third before Michigan starter Megan Betsa was lifted, though the inning ended without another run: It certainly seemed like the floodgates would open for the Gators, sooner than later.

But they never did, with Michigan reliever Haylie Wagner allowing no hits for the rest of the night, and after getting three runs from its dormant ace, Florida was left to win this one on its own merits — and, in the sixth and seventh innings, in high-leverage situations for the future aces of the program.

The sixth belonged to Aleshia Ocasio, who had been brilliant through five innings, but started to look shaky in that frame, allowing Michigan's first two batters to reach base. Ocasio would rally to get two outs with a sac fly and a popup to second, but a walk loaded the bases, and Wolverines shortstop Abby Ramirez broke through with a two-run single.

But then Ocasio got Michigan table-setter Sierra Lawrence to fly out to deep left, and Florida was assured of going into the last inning with a lead.

"I was a little nervous, but this is what I came here for. I was ready," Ocasio told ESPN after the game, and her first five innings of the six she threw, in which she scattered three hits, back her statement up.

The seventh was when the game went mental.

Florida coach Tim Walton lifted Ocasio, a freshman All-American, for Delanie Gourley, a crafty lefty (and the first recruited by Walton to Florida) who hadn't pitched in almost a month, and Gourley immediately faced danger in the form of Michigan superstar Sierra Romero, the nation's best hitter.

Gourley skied one pitch to Romero to the backstop, but rallied to a full count before issuing a walk ... then helped Romero move to second by throwing a pitch Aubree Munro couldn't handle, and to third by allowing a single to Kelly Christner.

With runners on the corners, though, Gourley buckled down. First, she induced a grounder to Florida's wizardly shortstop, Katie Medina, that seemingly gave the Gators a double play...

...but a close call at first went to Michigan's Kelsey Susalla.

And yet the worst mistake on the play was by Romero, a finalist for the player of the year award Haeger won last week, who hesitated as Medina fielded the grounder with her back to third and ultimately failed to sprint home for the tying run on the play. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins was seen saying "You gotta go" Romero after the play.

It would prove to be the difference in the game.

Gourley fanned Michigan's Lauren Sweet in the next at-bat, and induced another grounder to Medina from Lindsay Montemarano to finish off Florida's victory. All three (four?) of Florida's outs in the top of the seventh came with Romero, not lacking for speed, just 60 feet from tying the game.

And now Florida is just one win away from its second national title in the sport — its second consecutive national title — and has tied the all-time record for consecutive wins in NCAA Tournament play, having prevailed for a 15th straight time on Monday night. (Florida's last loss in the NCAA Tournament came in Game 2 of its Super Regional against Washington in 2014.)

For the Gators, taking that record for good on Tuesday night would be the culmination of a fantastic two years of softball. And Walton will no doubt turn to Haeger, the best player in the country, to get it done on the mound.