Chris Harry’s Blog Harry Fodder
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Tim Walton arrived at Florida in 2006 and promptly led the Gators to the NCAA Tournament. Two years later, they were in the Women’s College World Series for the first time.
The Gators have been there six of the seven years since, including their current trek to the grounds of ASA Hall of Stadium, where No. 6 UF (50-12) faces No. 17 Baylor (47-14) in opening-round play Thursday at noon.
In its previous five trips, Florida came up short in its quest to win the program’s first national championship. Berths in the 2009 and 2011 best-of-three championship rounds ended with sweeps at the hands of Washington and Arizona State, respectfully.
So now what?
Here’s a look at three things that need to happen -- besides pitching and playing defense, which is the identity of this Florida team -- to give UF the best chance to stick around Bricktown a while and make a deep run into the eight-team, double-elimination bracket.
1) WIN THE FIRST GAME
If it sounds obvious, well, it’s because it is. But the ramifications of winning Game 1 -- more to the point, not losing Game 1 -- run deep.
A victory on the first day in OKC is a huge confidence and moral builder. It sends an internal message to the team that it belongs. Better yet, it keeps the team out of the loser bracket.
The Day 1 losers get a day off to rebound from the defeat, but that’s also a day to think about, stew on it and (worse) worry about. They'll also probably hear how it’s been 11 years -- UCLA in 2003 -- since a team lost its first game and crawled from the loser’s bracket to win a national title.
The Gators lost their opener last year, as ace Hannah Rogers walked three of the five batters she faced before Walton gave her a quick hook. UF trailed by three runs before it even batted and went on to lose 9-2. The Gators bounced back to defeat Nebraska in a 15-inning elimination game marathon the following night, but they were pretty much spent the day after that in a 3-0 loss to Texas.
In 2009, when the Gators won their opener, they strung three straight together and played for it all. In 2011, they won the first and hung around for seven games.
It’s the better, safer, more optimistic path.
2) MUCHO AT-BATS FOR STEWART
Walton says sophomore Kelsey Stewart (right) makes the UF offense go. The numbers bear that out.
Stewart, the first-team All-America second baseman who has started all 129 of her games with the Gators, leads the team in average, (.435), hits (94), runs (63) and stolen bases (34 on 39 attempts. When she’s on base it puts the defense on high alert -- on edge, too -- and Florida plays with a little more pop.
In the Super Regional win over Washington, the bottom of the UF batting order, namely catcher Aubree Munro and shortstop Katie Medina, out-performed their averages and got some really timely hits that turned the lineup over and put Stewart up to the plate.
This is a leadoff batter with 55 RBI. That’s third-most on the team.
Get her to up to bat.
3) COVER FOR HAEGER
Junior slugger Lauren Haeger (left) has been the big bat in the UF lineup, leading the Gators in homers in each of her three seasons.
But Haeger needs help around her.
Specifically, behind her.
Haeger is a threat to go yard every time she’s at the plate. Opposing teams know that, so they will pitch her accordingly. That means the batter behind Haeger, usually third in the lineup, needs to deliver or else Haeger will see very few pitches she likes to hit.
Last year, Haeger came to Oklahoma City hitting .336 with 18 homers and 70 RBI. In UF’s three games, she went 1-for-12 (.083), struck out four times and left nine runners on base. Clearly, she was pressing, knowing how badly her team needed to her to deliver.
But worth noting: Kelsey Horton, who batted behind Haeger in each of those games, went 0-for-9 with six strikeouts.
That hole in the middle of the lineup was contagious, as the Gators hit a collective .165 before in their three '13 WCWS bowing out.
Walton has used several players in that after-Haeger role, most recently Briana LIttle (.326, 5 home runs, 24 RBI). But Bailey Castro (.265, 7 homers, 26 RBI) and Kirsti Merritt (.289, 11 homers, 47 RBI) are candidates for that spot, also.
If Walton really wants to protect Haeger, he may toy with the idea of moving Stephanie Tofft (.356, 10 homers, 59 RBI) from second in the order to fourth. He has options.