Gators defense drives them to Oklahoma City

The Florida Gators are headed back to the Women’s College World Series for the seventh time in the last eight seasons on the arm of one of the most dominant pitchers we have seen in Lauren Haeger, but also because of the defense behind Haeger. The Gators 1-0 win over Kentucky was another notch in the belt of this fairly young program.

How dominant has the Florida defense been? Try zero runs allowed in five NCAA games so far this season. For those counting at home, that’s 36 scoreless innings and counting.

No doubt Haeger has been dominant. The senior threw her fourth shutout of this postseason - she has recorded 29.0 consecutive scoreless frames during that span while allowing 10 hits, striking out 24 batters and walking just three. Haeger also does it with the bat and head coach Tim Walton knows what kind of special player he has in the all-star pitcher and hitter.

“Lauren has one of the best ERAs in the country,” Walton said following the game. In my opinion, today she just solidified National Player of the Year. How could she not -- 28 wins, home runs. I'm not saying we wouldn't be at the World Series, but there's no way we'd be SEC champs and there's no way we'd be in this position.

Haeger is a threat to hit a home run every time up, which of course makes it easier when she is pitching. She is the only player in Division I Softball history with over 60 home runs and total wins. She has 68 bombs and 69 wins so far in her career.

Haeger said there was no bigger moment in her college career than the last pitch for a strikeout to clinch the close victory and the trip to Oklahoma City.

"It was a good feeling,” she said. “I've never been in that situation before; I've never been the winning pitcher in a game like that, so it was just exciting to have Aubree [Munro] just tackle me. It was a little different because when she would tackle Hannah, Hannah would go down, but we just hit. No one went down. It was so great; everyone was so happy. Getting back to the World Series is a goal that we always have, and I'm just excited that I could be the one in the circle to do it."

But, that defense behind Haeger has been ultra-impressive as well and it is something that Walton almost takes for granted at this point.

“I think all of our coaches and players have a high expectation for our defense,” Walton said. “You just come to be who you are, and we just happen to be a really good defensive team. I look out there at the end -- when we scored the run, we shifted to a little bit more defense. That's one thing you overlook -- a left-handed first baseman [Taylor Schwarz] makes plays that right-handed first basemen can't, [like] the stretch play to be closer to Katie Medina across the diamond. They don't amaze me anymore. We've come to expect it. We've come to expect them to make great plays.”

One big play came on a pop-up bunt to catcher Aubree Munro. Munro dove ahead 6-feet or so into the playing field to make the catch and then was able to fire the ball to first base for a double play and end the 4th inning.

"With pop-up bunts like that, there's that weird backspin, so [I was] just seeing it in my glove all the way because that's an easy ball to get the heel of your glove and pop out,” Munro said. “[I was] just trying to get settled and see where the runner was at, so I was trying to be quick and not panic and just get the ball to (first baseman) Taylore Fuller."

Now Florida has a date in Oklahoma City on Thursday against the team that last beat them… Tennessee. Haeger only gave up two runs that day but it was enough for the Volunteers to win the game 2-1.

With history on how to handle the World Series, Walton says the pressure on the season is now over and it is time for his squad to find their final identity for 2015.

"We've come this far,” Walton said. “The pressure's over to me. Nobody's going to be talking about us on the Sunday night softball show about how the number one seed went down, and there was a major upset in college softball. To me, the pressure's over. We've handled the pressure. Now it's time to go out and have fun and figure out who we are and what we're going to do moving forward in the postseason."

The odds are in their favor because of a spectacular defense that usually shines from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand until it meets a fellow defender’s glove.


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