Jim Burgess / UAA Communications

Early Gator runs key for both offense and defense

The No. 1 Florida Gators (56-8) won their first contest of the 2017 Women’s College World Series on Thursday in a fashion that may have not been expected. Scoring eight runs against Texas A&M (47-12) to win 8-0 was a surprise, yet everyone on the team and head coach Tim Walton knows they are always capable of doing so.

 

Florida has the National Player of the Year in the sport in pitcher Kelly Barnhill who is now 25-3 on the season. Barnhill did her usual damage on the mound, getting into a little bit of trouble in the first, but throwing four complete shutout innings before being lifted after giving up a single in the fifth, she accounted for all but three outs from the mound. It was the nation leading 39th shutout of the season, tied for most in school history.

The offense has been a different story all season. A lack of run support has meant that Barnhill and the other pitchers have had to keep teams from scoring very few runs in order for Florida to win. In just the last segment of the schedule the Florida offense had scored just 13 runs in the last nine games against Power-5 opponents before Thursday and 4-5 in those contests while scoring zero or one run in each of the five losses.

It changed on Thursday and it changed early with the Gators scoring two in the first and the second inning and eventually scoring in every inning (4) that they were at bat. Head coach Tim Walton and the players believe the early runs were big for the win on both sides of the ball.

“I thought obviously the way we came out and swung the bat early was the contributing factor for us to get a nice cushion,” Walton said following the contest.   It was good to see the players step up and really kind of create a normal atmosphere at the plate, normal atmosphere on defense, and a normal atmosphere in our work leading up to this.  I think the key is when you have a shut-down pitcher like Kelly Barnhill or a shut-down pitcher like Delanie Gourley, get them a lead early, and it makes everybody feel a lot more comfortable and the swings can open up a little bit. 

Catcher Janell Wheaton singled in the first inning and pushed across two runs and believes the run production helps the defensive side and especially the pitching.

“I think scoring in the first inning was very crucial especially for Kelly,” Wheaton said. “Her pitches were really a lot better later in the game, so I think she felt a little more comfortable, and just getting those runs, it makes it easier for us and it makes it more fun, less pressure after that.”

Barnhill could feel a change for herself.

“Whenever you get a lead, it really does take a lot of pressure off a pitcher,” the sophomore said. “You don't have to be pinpoint perfect like they talked about.  Of course you always still try to, but having that leeway and having those runs does really affect a pitcher's mentality up there on the mound.”

Aleshia Ocasio was responsible three RBI on the day with a couple of hits. She finished things off for the Gators with a three run shot over right-center in the fourth inning to get to the final 8-0 score. Getting runs on the board creates more positive at-bats according to Ocasio.

“I think we did want to make a statement,” Ocasio said. “Hitting is contagious, and when Kayli (Kvistad) started that rally, we just kept the energy going and kept the momentum going.  Like it was contagious… it helped Kelly a lot to stay calm and collected, and getting the lead just – the team in general just helps us stay calm.

Ocasio’s home run came off of the third pitcher in the contest for the Aggies. Samantha Show played right into the hands of what Ocasio was prepared for and what she was coached up to do.

“She has really good movement, Samantha Show, and she pitches a lot of rise balls, so I was just telling myself to stay on top of the ball, and before that last pitch, Coach told me to choke up, and I did, and I think that really helped me out with that hit a lot,” Ocasio said.

Walton was proud of his team. After missing the WCWS a year ago losing to Georgia at home in the Super Regional, he wondered what his team would do when they arrived in Oklahoma City for the big event. He found out that they were ready.

“Give credit to our kids,” Walton said. “Our coaches didn't do anything different.  We didn't put any added pressure on them.  I think I said it the other day, it's just going to come down to players if they can handle this moment, and I thought our players came out and handled this moment very well.”

Florida will now face LSU on Friday at 7 p.m. The Tigers were 2-1 winners over UCLA in the game that followed Florida’s match up with the Aggies.

 


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