When the Florida Gators of the smaller diamond arrived in College Station for the 2019 SEC Tournament earlier this week, they did so as a reeling club, losers of six of their last nine contests, and as the rare Florida softball team that appeared to be heading for an uphill road to the Women’s College World Series.
And yet, after Saturday, the Gators left the heart of Texas as champions — and quite possibly won’t have to leave Gainesville to pave their path to Oklahoma City.
That’s how good the Gators were in winning four games in four days at the sparkling Davis Diamond this week, beginning their run with a late rally to stun South Carolina on Wednesday and capping it with a gritty 2-1 win over Alabama on national television on Saturday: They went from reeling to rolling, and in barely a blink.
Mostly, Florida has its senior stars Kelly Barnhill and Amanda Lorenz to thank for that. But neither senior played a huge role on Wednesday, when Florida endured a long weather delay and then overcame a late deficit to flip the script on the Gamecocks.
South Carolina could not touch Florida starter Elizabeth Hightower prior to inclement weather that included the threat of tornadoes suspending play for nearly five hours, fanning in three of its first four at-bats, but subsequently touched her up for four runs before the end of the third inning, and held a 5-2 lead entering the bottom of the seventh despite Florida’s attempts to rally.
But Florida succeeded in that regard in that final frame, scoring runs on a Jordan Roberts RBI single and a fielding error to draw within a single run at 5-4. And then 2018 Super Regional hero Jordan Matthews swatted a two-run walk-off double to the fence, finishing off Florida’s largest comeback since 2015 and earning the Gators one more day in College Station.
From there, Barnhill took over.
The Gators’ senior ace, whose consistency has been an occasional issue throughout her career, had maybe her best three consecutive outings in this SEC Tournament, and began them on Thursday by throttling LSU in a one-hit, 3-0 shutout that featured a mere two baserunners.
She followed that up on Friday with a two-hit, 3-0 shutout against Auburn in which she struck out 11 batters and walked just two, allowing zero runners to advance past second base for the second straight outing.
Florida got atypical offensive contributions in those games — a three-RBI performance from Hannah Adams that included a two-run shot against Auburn; a run and an RBI for Lorenz and LSU, with the latter scoring one of the two unearned runs on the day — but was largely relying on Barnhill’s shutdown stuff to vanquish the two ranked SEC West foes.
On Saturday, they needed Barnhill’s best again — and mostly got it — but also needed Lorenz to step up at a massive moment.
And she did.
Barnhill allowed just two hits to the Crimson Tide, but walked six batters and found herself in trouble often. She struggled to navigate a tight strike zone against disciplined hitters so much that the Tide plating just a single run in the fourth inning — a frame that featured two runners on with no outs, runners at the corners with one out, and the bases loaded with one out after the second hit of the inning — felt like escape and victory for the Gators.
But Florida struggled in its own right with Alabama’s Krystal Goodman and Montana Fouts, leaving runners on in four of the first five innings. And it took some string-pulling by Tim Walton to engineer their pivotal sixth inning: After two outs from the Gators’ No. 6 and 7 hitters, Walton pinch-hit Cheyenne Lindsey for Hannah Sipos and was rewarded with a double, then brought up Matthews for Alex Voss and saw her walk to turn over the order and bring Lorenz to the plate with two on.
All the Gators’ senior slugger did was work a 3-1 count, foul off a first 3-2 pitch, and then reach out to lance a two-run double to the wall in left field.
Florida could not score again, in the frame or the game, but Lorenz had done her part to lift them, and it would be up to Barnhill to finish off the SEC’s regular season champions — who swept Florida in Gainesville in April, twice beating Barnhill and each time notching two earned runs against her.
That was not to be on this night. Barnhill issued walks in both the sixth and seventh innings, but cut down the final Alabama batters of each inning on strikes, preserving her 100th win as a Gator and earning Florida’s second consecutive SEC Tournament title.
Barnhill, unsurprisingly, was named SEC Tournament MVP after compiling a 0.33 ERA over three complete games on consecutive days, and Florida’s fifth SEC Tournament title tied Alabama and LSU for the most all-time. Florida is also the only team to win back-to-back SEC Tournaments twice, doing so in 2008 and 2009 before the past two year’s wins.
But while the accomplishment alone was nice for a Florida team that went just .500 in conference play in the regular season, and is probably going to get the Gators a national seed high enough to be in line to host not just Regional but Super Regional play, the way the Gators looked while winning holds the most promise for this team.
Florida scored just 13 runs over its time in College Station, but its four straight games of multiple runs is its longest such string against SEC competition this year, and the Gators’ ability to get runs both by relying on Lorenz — almost certainly the best hitter in collegiate softball — and without her aid bodes well for a postseason in which every foe will be looking to neutralize Lorenz if possible.
And while Barnhill’s 100th win puts her in the company of just two Florida hurlers, Stacey Nelson and Hannah Rogers, Barnhill’s performances resembling those of Nelson and Rogers, who each dragged Florida teams to Oklahoma City — and in Rogers’s case, a national title — with determination as much as repertoire, is maybe the sign that she is about to do something special.
Barnhill is as talented a pitcher as there is in softball, arguably, but has flinched and blinked at big moments in her career, and Florida seasons have ended because of that. This year, without a fellow All-American in the rotation to aid her, even more of Florida’s fortunes rest on the effectiveness of Barnhill’s right arm.
That arm delivered three straight great performances against very good teams this week.
If it — if Barnhill — can repeat that feat in the NCAA Tournament, a Florida team that could well have been written off a week ago will be back in the running to ink its name in history.