Lauren Haeger had seen trouble in first innings before in this Women's College World Series. LSU had threatened her on Friday. So had Auburn, on Sunday.
But this time, Haeger — with the help of relatively spotty defense behind her — let up a run, as Michigan turned a liner to Kirsti Merritt into the first first-inning run the Gators have given up all postseason.
After Haeger escaped the jam, for the first time in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, Florida trailed at the end of the first inning. And for the first time in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, Florida trailed at the end of the game.
That 1-0 lead turned into the final margin of victory for the Wolverines in Game 2 of the Women's College World Series championship series, as Florida failed to score a run for the first time in the 2015 season, and it evened the best-of-three final between the two teams at one win each.
Michigan's Sierra Lawrence and Sierra Romero led off that first inning with a single and a fielder's choice that failed to get an out — Florida's Katie Medina went to second on a slow roller to short, and not in time — and Lauren Sweet's liner to center outfoxed Merritt, who didn't break in quickly enough to make a stab at it, then had it glance off her glove and behind her. Haeger would settle, and retired 17 of the final 21 batters she faced, but the damage was done.
And Florida did none of its own. The Gators put runners on the corners with two outs in the second inning, and would get runners to second in the fourth and sixth, but went 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position on the night, compounding the struggles to turn baserunners into runs that has haunted this team all NCAA Tournament — without producing a loss.
The differences on this night were that first-inning run and Michigan southpaw Haylie Wagner, whose tempo and aggression threw off Florida's hitters: Most of the Gators swung early instead of batting patiently for most of the night, allowing Wagner to get through seven innings in a brisk 80 pitches. Kelsey Stewart and Nicole DeWitt, who pounded pitchers at the top of the order all year for the Gators, went a combined 0-for-6, and Bailey Castro, who entered the postseason leading Florida in home runs (a title Haeger has since swiped), went 0-for-3, and is now Florida's only regular lineup member who remains hitless in the WCWS.
And that leaves Florida coach Tim Walton with some decisions to make. Haeger, who went 2-for-3 with impressive bat work against Wagner's repertoire, was the only Gator to record multiple hits, and was fine after her first inning — which, with better defense, may have not produced any runs after all. She's a lock to start on the mound on Wednesday in the decisive Game 3 of the championship series.
But Wagner's almost assuredly going to be Michigan's pitcher, and Florida has struggled against her. Will Walton shuffle his order in an attempt to break up the lefties that she dominates? Could he sit Castro for the last game of her Florida career?
Suddenly, after a postseason in which Florida has had all the answers and confidence, questions and doubt are creeping in. The Gators will play their last game of the season — and they know that as fact.
This season can still all end in ecstasy for Florida.
But, for the first time, it is a very real possibility that it can end in agony, too.