GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In her four seasons, senior Hannah Rogers has pitched her Florida teammates out of countless jams. In time, freshman ace Delanie Gourley will do the same.
But give the UF duo the kind of cushions they took the mound with in last week’s Southeastern Conference vaporizing of Texas A&M -- or Wednesday night’s bombardment of USF -- and Coach Tim Walton’s offensive imagination just might run wild all the way to Oklahoma City.
“Yeah, it all just feels a little bit easier when you get that early lead,” Walton nodded.
The Gators went to College Station last week to face the 21st-ranked Aggies idling in the middle of the pack of the SEC standings. They came home in two-way tie for third place, thanks to an offense that apparently was not only swinging right off the bus but making solid contact.
UF led 2-0 after the top half of the first in Game 1 and went on to win 5-1. The Gators led 2-0 after their first in Game 2, smashing the Aggies 17-4. On Sunday, it was 3-0 before A&M had stepped to the plate and 8-0 after the final out.
Three wins by a score of 30-5, each time forcing the home team to chase runs against outstanding pitching.
Florida continued their torrid top-of-the-order pace in its non-conference finale Wednesday, going 9-for-13 in the leadoff to clean-up spots, with eight runs and 10 RBI in a 17-1 demo job of the state-rival Bulls that marked UF’s 10th straight win.
Wanna get the Gators?
Better not let ‘em get you first.
“When you jump on the other team from the get-go, it takes the pressure off of everybody,” sophomore second baseman and leadoff hitter Kelsey Stewart said. “It gets everyone in the dugout going.”
“And it’s more fun.”
The third-ranked Gators (40-8, 11-7) hope the festive atmosphere continues this weekend when they welcome SEC foe, 15th-ranked and second-place Missouri (36-12, 12-6) in the final home series of the season at Pressly Stadium. If you’re going, arrive early. There could be a fireworks show, starting with UF’s 1-2-3-4 hitters.
In winning five games last week by a combined score of 49-6, the 1-through-4 spots in the batting order -- that would be Stewart, outfielder Kirsti Merritt, third baseman Stephanie Tofft and designated player/pitcher Lauren Haeger -- obliterated Aggies pitching to the tune of 33-for-59.
For those keeping score at home, that’s a .559 average, plus 27 runs and 23 RBI.
Granted, those numbers were inflated by that 17-4 thrashing on Saturday when the Gators sent 15 to the plate and scored 11 runs in the second inning alone. But that hardly takes away from the fact Florida is stepping into the box and swinging freely and confidently right now.
Those early leads are game-changers.
“It’s great setting the table for everybody,” Tofft said. “When the top of the order gets it going, everybody is like, ‘OK, if they can do it, we can do it. Let's go!’ It’s contagious.”
If that’s the case, then Walton might have an epidemic spreading through his club house -- and Tofft is “Patient Zero.”
In garnering both SEC and Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week honors, Tofft batted .700, with six runs scored, a double, three home runs and 10 RBI in the A&M series alone.
Like all great hitters, she credited “seeing the ball” well last week, but every bit as important to the Gators was her teammates seeing her mash away.
“Oh yeah, you loosen up at the plate, you take your swings, the pitchers can just go out there throw, and it all comes together,” Walton said. “Next thing you know, you look up and it’s 3-0 or 5-0.”
The top of the UF order wasn’t so hot as recently as just a few weeks ago, but maybe that’s the infectiousness at work. Case in point: Haeger is the Gators' best power hitter home run in the Saturday bludgeoning was her first since March 16.
She bombed another the next day.
“It’s always good to be hitting at the end of the season because you want to go into postseason hot,” Tofft said. “A lot of our bats are waking up now and it’s good to see.”
It starts at the top.