The Florida Gators had just three hits against the Florida State Seminoles on Wednesday night, and were locked in yet another close game against their rising Sunshine State rivals on the diamond at Katie Seashole Presley Stadium.
Then, in the bottom of the seventh inning, Kayli Kvistad ripped a shot to right that made the record crowd roar.
Kvistad’s single off FSU’s Meghan King scored the speedy Justine McLean, and gave the Gators a 1-0 win — their second straight in walk-off fashion against the Seminoles.
In 2016, Florida completed both of its games against FSU in Tallahassee, after rain postponed a game that began in April in Gainesville until May in Florida’s capital. And after a 7-1 win in the opener of that doubleheader, Florida pitcher Aleshia Ocasio finished the rain-delayed game with a walk-off homer.
That gave the Gators the unusual joy of a road victory on the game’s final swing — something that can only happen in softball and baseball, of course, when the typical last ups for a home team are not granted.
They would taste the flip side of that joy in postseason play, as Georgia ended Florida’s season with a walk-off homer in Game 2 of the Gainesville Super Regional in 2016.
But Florida just avenged that loss by sweeping Georgia last weekend — and taking the first of two games against the Seminoles, the nation’s top-ranked team by some estimates, shows that these Gators have the talent to chase their typically lofty goals.
On Wednesday, it was the talent on the mound that shined brightest for Florida. Senior Delanie Gourley started and allowed just four hits in five shutout innings, striking out seven, before sophomore Kelly Barnhill turned in two hitless innings in relief to get the win.
Those aren’t unusual numbers for Barnhill and Gourley — possessors of the sport’s No. 1 and No. 8 ERAs in 2017, respectively — but the competition makes them all the more impressive. Florida State still leads the country in batting average by a full .010 after a 4-for-22 night against the Gators, and is third in slugging and scoring, posting 7.68 runs per game.
A Jessica Warren double in the top of the first inning was the Seminoles’ only extra-base hit of the night, and Amanda Lorenz erased the only FSU scoring chance of the night on the next play, throwing out Warren at home to record Florida’s second outfield assist of the year — and second in as many games, after Justine McLean hosed a Georgia runner on Monday.
Gourley allowed three of her hits in that first inning, then settled in — she and Barnhill allowed just two baserunners after the first, and no Seminole made it past second after the third inning.
But Florida’s offense, still looking to recapture the form it had when carried by Lauren Haeger’s Ruthian performance as a senior in 2015, crept to the edge of scoring runs all night, even though it ultimately did just the one precious run of damage.
Prior to the seventh inning, the Gators had left seven runners on base, including runners on third in the fifth and sixth innings. When Kvistad broke through with her shot to right, she recorded Florida’s first hit with a runner aboard all night.
That sort of timely offense stands up when backed by a trio of aces like Florida’s — Ocasio joins Barnhill and Gourley in the nation’s top 10 in ERA — and it has been enough for the Gators for much of the season, as Florida has built arguably the nation’s best résumé once again. Only Arizona and Florida State — Nos. 1 and 2 in this week’s top 25 poll conducted by ESPN, and Nos. 2 and 1 in this week’s USA TODAY coaches poll — entered the week with fewer losses than Florida’s two, and Florida is one of just two teams in the RPI top 10 with more than 20 wins away from home. (Oregon is the other.)
Add that to Florida’s 13-1 mark in SEC play — in a league so good and deep that Georgia can be ranked in the national top 25 and No. 21 in RPI despite being 2-10 in conference action — and it’s clear that the Gators will be a top candidate for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, should they continue on their current trajectory.
And that trajectory could be easier to maintain if players other than their stars can step up to fuel an improving Florida offense. The Gators are No. 11 in scoring, No. 20 in slugging, and No. 22 in batting average, and so their offense isn’t anywhere near a truly worrying level of inefficiency — but Kvistad and Lorenz remain the only Gators hitting .370 or better for the second straight year, and are the only Gators regulars above a .450 on-base percentage on this year’s roster, compared to 2016’s four. (Though, to be fair, Nicole DeWitt will be over that mark if she reaches base in her first plate appearance in Florida’s next game.)
Just a little more offense would help Florida transform from the team with pitching no one wants to see in the NCAA Tournament to one better insulated against big swings in tight games — like the one that shocked all of college softball by knocking the Gators out of postseason play last spring.
But Florida did beat the coaches’ No. 1 team without an extra-base hit on Wednesday night, putting down a program that has clawed its way to near the Gators’ level for the 17th time in their 18 most recent meetings.
So who am I to question the queens of the walk-off?