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Sophomore catcher Aubree Munro circles the bases after smacking a solo homer against Alabama's All-American Jaclyn Traina.

Tuesday June 3, 2014Rogers, Gators' Bats Too Much for Traina, Tide

Sophomore catcher Aubree Munro circles the bases after smacking a solo homer against Alabama's All-American Jaclyn Traina.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Remember the scene in "Rocky IV" (good thing those movies are numbered) when the hero lands a punch to the face of Ivan Drago -- and draws blood?

“He’s not a machine!” screams Duke, the trainer to Hollywood’s most famous underdog. “He’s a man!”

That was the pseudo-scene in the Florida dugout Monday night when catcher Aubree Munro, UF’s No. 8 hitter, waylaid an inside fastball from Alabama superstar Jaclyn Traina and parked the pitch deep into the left-field bleachers at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

Munro’s first home run in 3 1/2 months didn’t just draw first blood for the Gators in Game 1 of the national championship series, it sent a message up and down the UF order that Traina -- the Crimson Tide All-America, former WCWS Most Valuable Player and one of the most dominant pitchers in NCAA history -- not only was human, but hittable. 

And thus beatable.

Very much so, as it turned out.

Sixth-ranked Florida lashed out eight hits against Traina -- just one fewer than she’d yielded in her three previous games at this WCWS -- and chased her in the seventh inning en route to a 5-0 win that put the Gators on the cusp of the first national championship in the program’s 18-year history.

UF (54-12) can win it all in Game 2 Tuesday night at 8 p.m. (ET). 

“Overall, you can tell by my voice that I’m not really very excited yet because there is really nothing to be excited about,” Florida coach Tim Walton said. “We’ve won one game and it’s a race to two.”

The Gators, though, have never reached the halfway point in the race before, having been swept in each of their previous trips to the WCWS title series (by Washington in 2009 and Arizona State in 2011).

Obviously, this path feels better, but it’s how it looked -- thoroughly onesided -- that raised some eyebrows throughout the crowd of 7,608 loaded with Crimson Tide fans banking on a second national championship in three seasons.

The Tide (50-12) had not been shutout since a Feb. 16 loss at Arizona, a run of 52 games.

“There are three things you need to win a high-caliber softball game: great starting pitching, great team defense and you need to get the timely hits,” Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. “They were 3-for-3 and we were 0-for-3. That's the story of the game.”

Hannah RogersBut there was one big subplot.

In a game billed as a duel between the two hottest pitchers in OKC, Hannah Rogers (photo, left) played the part of the Earps while Traina was gunned down like the Clantons at the O.K. Corral. 

Rogers, like she’s done from the moment she climbed off the plane at Will Rogers (no relation) World Airport, was nothing short of spectacular. The senior from Lake Wales, Fla., set down the first 12 Bama batters in order, allowed just four hits and carded her sixth shutout in seven NCAA Tournament games.

"She's' lights out," said Munro, Rogers' battery mate. "She's on a mission right now and she's honestly guiding our whole team." 

“I’m just confident and trusting my pitches,” said Rogers, who threw only 80 of them (compared to Traina’s 114) and did not walk a batter in improving to 30-8 on the season. “If it gets [hit] hard, I trust my defense.”

Oh yeah, the defense. The one that turned the fourth and fifth double plays of the series. Third baseman Stephanie Tofft started the first (a 5-4-3 special) that negated a leadoff single in the fifth, and Rogers the second (1-4-3) that wiped out a leadoff single in the seventh.

And then there was the Florida offense.

UF faced Traina twice in March when Alabama took two of three from the Gators in Gainesville by scores of 4-2 and 7-0. Guess which game she didn’t pitch? In those 14 innings against Traina, the Gators managed just two runs (only one earned) and struck out 10 times. Her ERA in those two games was 0.71. 

That latter number had dipped to 0.62 when Munro stepped to the plate to start the third. She was batting .274 for the season, but without a home run since Feb. 14 (or 111 days).

“I haven’t been trying to hit home runs. I’ve been trying to make good contact, get the ball through the infield, things like that,” said the sophomore from Brea, Calif. “I just saw a good pitch and was able to drive it out.”

This one got out really, really fast -- UF’s first hit of the game -- and just as quickly got the attention of her teammates.

Walton called it the “clutch hit” of the night because of the message it sent to his players.

“I know most people think it sounds easy, but getting that hit ... ” he said. “It was huge.”

Contagious, too. The Gators got another runner to second in that inning, and did it again and fourth, keeping the pressure on Traina, who's ERA for the series was 0.33 coming in. She had not been tested, not like this. Florida finally punched through again on the scoreboard in the fifth by doing its small-ball thing; with two outs, no less.

Kelsey Stewart laid down a perfect bunt single and scored from first when Kirsti Merritt followed by ripping a double into the alley in left. Then Tofft went the other way with a solid single to left, plating Merritt for a 3-0 cushion.

A comfy margin, given Rogers dominance in the circle the last three weeks.

“Three was manageable,” Murphy said of the Tide's deficit. “Five was tough.”

The Gators made it 5-0 in the seventh with another hit by Stewart, a bunt and throwing error off the bat of Merritt, a sacrifice fly by Tofft (for her second RBI) and a run-scoring double from Lauren Haeger.

Whatever slim hopes the Tide had when Haylie McCleney stroked a leadoff single to start the seventh, it was snuffed when Rogers turned her double play.

Alabama’s players praised Rogers for her performance, but actually found encouragement in collecting a trio of singles in the last inning, even if the double-play and game-ending groundout netted nothing on the board.

“We proved that we can hit her,” McCleney said. “She didn’t no-hit us, didn’t one-hit us. That’s something we’re going to look at and take with us [Tuesday] and kind of visualize that seventh inning.”

Because Game 2 is a slam dunk to be Rogers vs. Traina again, the Gators have some reference points against Bama’s big arm to do some visualizing of their own. Munro's blast, for example. Stewart's two hits. Haeger's pair, also, after UF's best power hitter started the series 1-for-12.

Maybe that seventh inning, too.

Specifically, how it ended with a resounding victory.

 

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