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UF coach Tim Walton treats himself to some sweet post-game decadence after a win at the Women's College World Series.

Thursday May 29, 2014Carnival Atmosphere: All Fun and Funnel Cake for Gators in 11-0 Blanking of Baylor in WCWS Opener

UF coach Tim Walton treats himself to some sweet post-game decadence after a win at the Women's College World Series.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Women’s College World Series has a state-fair sort of atmosphere, so Florida coach Tim Walton figured he’d dangle something of a carnival carrot at his No. 6 hitter.

“Funnel cake,” Walton said of junior outfielder Bailey Castro. “We told that kid if she got a hit we were going to get her some funnel cake -- and she got fired up!”

Apparently, Castro is big on funnel cake. So big that she parked a Whitney Canion pitch into the right-center field alley, scoring a pair of runs that gave the Gators a cushy lead Thursday in the first inning of the first game of the WCWS at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

Castro swinging When an outfield throwing error allowed Castro to advance to third on the play, Walton was waiting there in the coaching box.

“He yelled, ‘Funnel cake for you!’ ” Castro said after sixth-ranked UF’s 11-0 run-rule rout of No. 17 Baylor. “I mean, who doesn’t like funnel cake?”

If it meant corn dogs, churros, kettle corn, fried pickle chips and lemonade to avoid the loser’s bracket -- where no team has lost its opener and gone on to win the WCWS since the event went to a best-of-three championship series 11 years ago -- Walton would have ordered up such a pre-game spread for his team.

Wasn’t necessary. Not the way the Gators are hitting the ball in this NCAA Tournament. 

After a three-run first, free-swinging, funnel-cake eating Florida was well on its way to its most decisive, shutout win in six trips and 24 games at the WCWS. Baylor started the day ranked fifth in the nation in earned-run average at 1.55, but UF punched out nine hits, including a pair of home runs, with pinch-hitter Chelsea Herndon’s walk-off grand slam (with no outs) ending the game by the eight-run mercy rule in the fifth.

The Gators (51-12), who will face No. 1 Oregon (55-7-1) in a winner’s bracket game Friday night, have now won six of the the last seven postseason games by a combined score of 60-4 and gone the full seven innings in only two of those outings.

All six of their NCAA wins have come by shutout, with senior ace Hannah Rogers accounting for four of them after handcuffing the Bears (47-15) to just three hits while shutting the Big 12 Conference runners-up out for just the third time this season. Their previous two were 1-0 defeats.

“We were sucker-punched quick and we didn’t respond,” Baylor coach Glenn Moore said. “It was more what we did to ourselves than what Florida did to us. I thought they played a great game and we played maybe the worst game that I've been a part of coaching, I think in four or five years.”

Hannah Walton can relate. It was here last year, on the tournament’s first day, that Rogers walked three of the first five Tennessee batters she faced and the Gators were behind 3-0 against an All-America pitcher before their arms were even loose.

That 2013 UF team didn’t have the offensive firepower of this one; chasing an early three-run deficit for that team was like chasing five or six runs.

The 2014 Gators, though, are peaking at the plate, and with the roles reversed from that downer first-day scenario a year ago, the Gators steamrolled into the next round on the happy side of the bracket.

“I think the way I’ve been pitching lately has given me confidence to go out there and shut it down,” said Rogers (pictured above left) of her latest masterpiece, as no Bear baserunner advanced past second. “Also, our offense is doing really good right now.”

Three weeks ago, the Gators were eliminated in first-round play of the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a humbling 2-0 loss to Georgia. Since then, Walton and his staff have tweaked some things with their hitters, putting more emphasis on slapping while keeping his small-ball options open.

Kirsti swinging Take Kirsti Merritt (left), for example.

Her one-out single got the Gators going in the first. Her solo homer to open third gave UF a 4-0 lead. Not bad for the sophomore center fielder who officially landed her team in OKC with a walk-off three-run homer in the decisive Game 3 Super Regional win over Washington just four days earlier.

Nearly 60 games into the season, she adjusted the mechanics in her swing and is making solid contact with the ball nearly every at-bat.

“It has to do with slapping,” Merritt said. “It makes my swing very smooth. It changes everything.”

And it seems to be contagious. Eight different Gators rapped base hits against Canion, who came into the game with a 31-10 mark and 1.40 ERA. Florida rocked her for five runs and made her throw 81 pitches in just 3 1/3 innings.

AubreeRogers, meanwhile, threw just 69 pitches (with no walks), which means she’ll be a viable option to be back in the circle for the game against the Ducks. The winner of that one gets an off day to soak up the spoils of the winner’s bracket mojo.

The Gators are winning. They're hitting. And their star pitcher is dominating, having yet to allow a run in four games and 21 NCAA innings.

“Ever since the postseason began, Hannah’s had that look in her eye,” said catcher Aubree Munro (right).

It’s a look a lot of Gators have in their eyes right now, but it gave way to looks of contentment after the game.

At the funnel cake stand.

 

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