Florida's 3-0 loss to Georgia on Thursday night in Game 1 of its Gainesville-based NCAA Super Regional was a stunner for a variety of reasons. The Gators are, rightfully, the nation's No. 1 overall seed. They haven't lost a series to Georgia since 2011. They came in with a nearly flawless record in Super Regional play.
But being the best team in the country doesn't make the Gators invincible. And Georgia took advantage of Florida's biggest weakness — its offense.
Georgia ace Chelsea Wilkinson scattered just three hits in shutting out the Gators for the first time in an NCAA Tournament game since Game 2 of the Women's College World Series championship series last year — an equally shocking result, given that those 2015 Gators hadn't lost en route to that point in the NCAA Tournament. That team suffered its first shutout in that loss to Michigan, then rallied to win Game 3 and its second straight national title.
That team was better at the plate than this one, and it was mostly because of pop, even though that wasn't all Lauren Haeger.
The 2015 Gators posted an identical .438 on-base percentage that the 2016 Gators have put up to this point, and a lower batting average (.303 to this year's .314 mark), but had a .514 slugging percentage that is significantly better than this team's .470. Florida hit 80 home runs last year, with Haeger, Bailey Castro, and Taylore Fuller combining for 50 of them; so far this year, Florida has 58 homers, with no one belting more than Kayli Kvistad's 11.
Doubles (53 through Thursday to 81 total in 2015) are down, too, and a walk total that has already surpassed last year's total hasn't helped translate into runs, with 2016 Florida more than 50 runs back of the final tally for last year's Gators.
Florida had just one double on Thursday, a two-out knock by Kirsti Merritt, and no triples or (obviously) homers. The Gators could use more of any of those on Friday, when they will take on the Bulldogs again at 5 p.m., and, if necessary, at 8 p.m. in Game 2 and a potential Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional.
Here are a couple of big-picture ideas for the Gators to get their offense going — and a third, smaller change that might just make the most sense of all.
Swing away early or stay patient
In Florida's loss to Michigan last year, the Gators were arguably far too aggressive at the plate. Michigan hurler Haylie Wagner threw her shutout on a scant 80 pitches, a far cry from the 108 Wilkinson had to throw on Thursday.
And patience paid off for the Gators on Thursday. All five Florida at-bats that featured a three-ball count ended with a runner on base, via three walks, a single by Aubree Munro, and Merritt's double. Just one of those, though, came after the third inning, via a leadoff walk by pinch hitter Aleshia Ocasio in the seventh, suggesting that the Gators started pressing after falling behind 1-0 in the top of the fourth.
And maybe that was true. But Florida can adjust to that by simply being aggressive from the gates, or by forcing Georgia's pitcher — whether Wilkinson, No. 2 starter Brittany Gray, or Kylie Bass (who has the team's best ERA, but has largely been used in relief) — to nibble all day. Good pitches to hit are good pitches to hit in the first or fifth inning, and hitter's counts are hitter's counts early or late, so there's merit to staying patient or sitting riseball whenever it happens.
But the Gators probably need to do something other than what they did on Thursday, and swinging away early or waiting and working the count even in tenser late innings would both be departures from the course that produced a loss.
Take the lead
The Independent Florida Alligator's Matt Brannon made an astute and prescient point on Thursday: This year, Florida is most vulnerable when it doesn't take the lead.
Four of the #Gators five losses have come when the other team scores first.— Matt Brannon (@MattB_727) May 27, 2016
Georgia leads UF 1-0 heading into the Top 5
After Thursday, five of Florida's six losses in 2016 fit that pattern, and all have come against very good SEC teams: Alabama, Auburn, and now Georgia. (The exception was a 6-4 loss to Texas A&M.)
Another commonality in all six losses? Trailing from early on. In all six losses, Florida had trailed at least once by the end of the fourth inning; in five, the Gators were behind after three; and in four, they were down entering the third inning. Being able to avoid deficits and score first this year has certainly helped the Gators — they're 49-1 when scoring first — but their 7-5 mark when the other team pushes a run across first speaks to struggles with recovering from a hole.
If Florida's coaches and players are weighing swinging away early against maintaining a patient approach, consider me firmly on the side of swinging away.
Let Lele hit
Finally, the best tweak available to Tim Walton might be the one he has been reluctant to make: Letting Ocasio, the best pitcher in college softball this year, take her own cuts.
Walton has almost exclusively used Kvistad as his designated player in 2016, to the point that the talented slugger hasn't even recorded a defensive chance. And given that Delanie Gourley and Kelly Barnhill aren't really known as hitters, that certainly makes sense on both ends — to get Kvistad in the lineup and not force a pitcher to hit — when they're on the hill.
Ocasio, nicknamed "Lele" to the point that it's literally a parenthetical on her Facebook page, is different. Over her admittedly few at-bats — just 27 on the year — she's put up a .444 batting average and a .667 slugging percentage, which is better than any Gators regular. Earlier this month, she smacked a walk-off home run. And Ocasio has openly pined for more plate appearances, saying as much even this week.
Figuring out a way to let her hit for herself and accomodate Kvistad is a no-brainer, too, because it's not as if Kvistad is a total liability in the field: She didn't commit an error in 105 chances in 2015, and can be effectively hidden at first. Given that Florida's other two usual first basemen — Taylor Schwarz, who has struggled mightily in her senior season, and Janell Wheaton, who has one multi-hit game since St. Patrick's Day — are no great threats, letting Ocasio hit and stationing Kvistad at first just makes too much sense — to me, anyway — to not be an adjustment on Friday.
But I'm not the coach with two straight NCAA crowns. Walton is, and if anyone's going to pilot the first comeback by a No. 1 overall seed from a Super Regional-opening loss, it's probably him. And while much ado was made by some about these Gators' dire straits also being uncharted waters, they have managed to stave off elimination in a Super Regional before, doing so in 2014 against Washington.
Florida did fall to Texas A&M in a 2007 Super Regional after dropping its first game, but that was on the road, not in Gainesville — and that's the only other time the Gators have made a Super Regional but not the Women's College World Series.
And Florida's loss to Georgia dropped it all the way to 14-2 in Super Regional play at home. And no No. 1 overall seed has failed to make it to Oklahoma City in the Super Regional era, which dates to 2005. And while Florida has a habit of dropping games to the Dawgs, having not swept Georgia in a series since 2008, they also only have one series loss to the Bulldogs under Walton — though that did come in a sweep in Gainesville in 2011.
The point is this: History remains favorable to the Gators, and throwing Ocasio alone — she's a lock to start Game 2, and could probably pitch at least some of a Game 3 — is likely to be a boost.
Florida may have its back to the wall now, but the Gators aren't without hope.