The Florida Gators’ 2019 softball season has been at once what everyone expects of Tim Walton’s powerhouse program and an expedition into uncharted waters.
Right now, it’s looking more like the former, after a 4-0 victory over defending national champion Florida State in Tallahassee on Wednesday night.
But to properly appreciate the Gators blanking the Seminoles on their home turf for an eighth straight win, one has to look at where Florida was before this streak — namely, in an unfamiliar position for Walton’s dynastic program.
On April 3, the Gators hosted Florida State for the first time since the Seminoles captured the Women’s College World Series crown in 2018, and fell, 2-0, scratching six hits against FSU’s Meghan King (eight strikeouts, no walks), who outdueled Kelly Barnhill (six strikeouts, four hits, four walks, one homer) in a matchup of aces who went the distance.
And, normally, a midweek loss to FSU, however rare — Florida improved to 26-17 all-time against FSU on Wednesday, but improved its record under Walton against the Seminoles to 19-6 — would be little cause for concern. But this loss fit a pattern for this team, which had just dropped three consecutive SEC series, and previously lost two games against UCLA on a westward swing: The offense that has been so good for so many years under Walton found itself punchless at the wrong times, and Barnhill’s prodigious abilities were only good for so much.
In Florida’s nine losses this season, the Gators have scored a total of nine runs — and they have only scored more than two runs once, in a 5-4 defeat at Ole Miss. UCLA, Tennessee, LSU, and Florida State have all shut out the Gators this year, with UCLA and Tennessee giving up single runs in separate wins.
And Barnhill, whose credentials as a Florida legend really only lack a national title, has been both lit up — for four earned runs by UCLA, five by Tennessee, five by Ole Miss, and six by Texas A&M in separate outings — and been a hard-luck loser, having allowed just two earned runs in three of her five losses. (The five runs allowed to Ole Miss also came just hours after Barnhill threw all 15 innings of a classic, and the six runs the Aggies scored didn’t keep Florida from winning that game.)
Florida doesn’t have another pitcher close to Barnhill’s talent level this year, despite the best efforts of the developing Natalie Lugo and Elizabeth Hightower, and so Barnhill serves as the thoroughbred the Gators must ride — but when Barnhill is hittable, and Florida’s offense is anemic, the Gators are vulnerable.
And that played out over that stretch from March to early April, as their record went from 18-0 to 29-9.
But that record now stands at 37-9.
Since that April 3 loss to FSU, Florida has scored three or more runs in all but one of its games — and Barnhill, who is 6-0 in that stretch, has given up more than one run just once, in the aforementioned 8-6 slugfest with Texas A&M. The Gators have swept series against a ranked Arkansas team and a winning Texas A&M team that might have postseason aspirations, and pitched shutouts — both Barnhill’s — in midweek clashes with perennial postseason participant USF and FSU, one of the nation’s best teams.
Last night, FSU mustered just two hits off Barnhill, who fanned nine and walked three, while Florida pounded out 10 hits and left nine on base against FSU’s Makinzy Herzog and Kathryn Sandercock.
Suddenly, Florida looks a lot more like, well, Florida.
And the Gators have things rolling at an opportune time, with series against current SEC leader Alabama and potent Auburn coming over the next fortnight. Florida sits at 9-6 in league play but could make up all of its deficit to the 11-4 Crimson Tide this weekend with a sweep, and would put a fair bit of pressure on LSU (13-5) and Tennessee (10-5) by doing so.
For these Gators, though, winning the SEC is a lofty goal — not their ultimate aim. Walton will seek a 12th trip to Oklahoma City in 14 years this postseason, with Barnhill and Amanda Lorenz — Florida’s star seniors and the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in this week’s National Pro Fastpitch College Draft — looking for the elusive national title to cap their careers.
And while Florida’s recent run of play is an improvement on their middling March, it’s likely that the competition on the way to OKC will more closely resemble UCLA and LSU than Arkansas and Texas A&M.
So the best thing for fans to take from the past two weeks of rebounding with ferocity is, I think, cautious optimism. Florida losing close, hard-fought games against good teams may well have taught these Gators plenty about how to win those games — or it may have just been representative of this team not being good enough to get those games out of the range of being decided by one lucky bounce or swing.
For now, though, Florida looking like Florida again seems like a positive sign.
Pass it down.