For the second time in as many days in Oklahoma City, Florida Gators ace Kelly Barnhill got off to a shaky start on the mound.
And for the second time in as many Women’s College World Series games, Florida’s sometimes spotty offense made any and all nerves from Barnhill utterly immaterial.
The Gators scored in three separate innings, getting home runs from Janell Wheaton and Kayli Kvistad, and backed up another shutout effort — this time, entirely Barnhill’s — in a 7-0 win on Friday night that sets Florida up perfectly for the rest of the event.
Florida struggled on its first pass against LSU ace Carley Hoover, but found its form midway through the second rotation in the top of the fourth, with Hoover putting two runners on without a hit before Chelsea Herndon slashed a double to right to plate both runs.
And LSU’s moves to different pitchers didn’t help. In the sixth, Wheaton homered off Allie Walljasper, who had retired the side in order in the fifth inning, and in the seventh, Kvistad chased Walljasper with another two-run shot. And Maribeth Gorsuch, brought in to sop up the final two outs, still yielded a pair of baserunners and a seventh run before getting them.
Florida’s offense has now generated more runs in each of its two WCWS games than it did in the entire Gainesville Super Regional, when the Gators struggled to score against Alabama.
And Florida’s pitching and defense is arguably better now than it was then. LSU got two runners on against Barnhill in the bottom of the first, and had a go-ahead run on third in the bottom of the second, but would only get one hit over the final six innings, and never got a runner past second over the final five. Barnhill went the distance for her first WCWS shutout, striking out eight batters and issuing just three walks despite being squeezed into a career-high number of balls thrown by a tight strike zone.
Behind her? A defense that has gone from nervy to nails, with Aleshia Ocasio making plays both big and small.
Florida will now rest on Saturday, with its opponent in Sunday’s so-called “2-0, 2-1” game to be determined. LSU, Texas A&M, and UCLA will battle for the right to face the suddenly-great-in-all-facets Gators with a season on the line in elimination games on Saturday.
The nation’s No. 1 seed, on the other hand, needs just one more win to return to the championship series.