The schedule hardly gets easier for No. 17 Tennessee (39-9, 15-5), as it next faces No. 5 Alabama in Tuscaloosa this coming Saturday for a doubleheader starting at 4 p.m. Eastern. The second game, slated to start at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, will be televised by ESPN. The series finale on Sunday will begin at 4 p.m. Eastern, and it will be televised by ESPNU.
No. 4 Florida (35-7, 15-4) showed its experience early in the first game last Friday against Lady Vol freshman pitcher Ivy Renfroe. After loading the bases with only one out, a groundout from junior shortstop Megan Bush scored one run, and junior right fielder Kelsey Bruder followed immediately with a three-run homer to put the Gators in front 4-0.
Renfroe regrouped, surrendering no more runs, but she was replaced by sophomore Cat Hosfield before the fourth inning. The switch was effective, as Hosfield's wicked changeup appeared to puzzle the powerful Gator hitters, at least for a short while.
Tennessee's bats produced only a few hits through the first five innings due in part to Gator pitching ace junior All-American Stephanie Brombacher.
In the top of the fifth, a single followed by a sacrifice bunt and a double by freshman center fielder Michelle Moultrie plated another Florida run. As Moultrie tried to steal third base, senior UT catcher Tiffany Huff hit her with a throw, and Moultrie was able to score on the error for 6-0, the final score.
Tennessee had few scoring chances during the game, but the opportunity that seemed most promising was dashed by an outstanding Gator play. In the bottom of the sixth inning, stellar freshman left fielder Raven Chavanne led off with a single, her first of the day. Junior center fielder Kelly Grieve promptly bunted to reach base for two on with no outs. Moultrie responded for the Gators by catching two straight fly balls, the second of which was an amazing behind-the-head "web gem" of a grab that certainly would have scored at least one run for Tennessee had she not pulled off the play. Huff then flied out to left field to end the inning.
"We missed opportunities, and they got some clutch hits," Weekly said. "I've been in this game a long time, and they're one of the best teams I've seen all-around."
It was the first game Tennessee had been shut out all season long, a span of 47 contests.
In the second game Renfroe once again got the starting pitching nod for Tennessee, and this time she was more aggressive with Florida's hitters. The play in general from both sides was more aggressive.
In the bottom of the first inning, Chavanne was hit by a pitch from Gator freshman pitcher Ensley Gammel, granting her first base; however, Raven needed a new helmet before taking her base because the pitch broke her facemask, leaving it dangling from one hinge.
After both teams continued to leave multiple runners on base through the first few innings, Florida managed to score first in the third inning. A single, a walk, and a double put the Gators up 1-0.
Tennessee responded immediately in dramatic fashion. With two outs in the bottom of the third, sophomore third baseman Jessica Spigner walked, Huff singled, and freshman second baseman Lauren Gibson was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Senior designated player Nicole Kajitani then came through with a clutch single to tie the game 1-1.
Cat Hosfield replaced Ivy Renfroe once again, this time after the fourth inning was over. The switching mid-game was used to try and keep Florida's dangerous hitters from feeling comfortable at the plate.
"It's kind of like a one, two punch almost," Hosfield said. "It really worked, getting them off balance. That was the main key. Their hitters are so good; you can't just let 'em see one pitcher all game."
The contest next got interesting when Tennessee freshman right fielder Kat Dotson led off with a single in the bottom of the fifth inning. After a sacrifice bunt by Spigner and a groundout by Huff, Gibson singled through left field to give the Lady Vols their first lead of the day 2-1.
After an uneventful sixth inning for both sides, the Gators only had three outs to respond. Fortunately for Florida, the top of their order was due up, a stretch of hitters that had produced over 40 homeruns in the season. A leadoff single, a walk, and another single with a couple of pop outs mixed in loaded the bases with two outs. A bloop hit from Gator senior third baseman Corrie Brooks just barely dropped over the outstretched glove of Tennessee shortstop Ashley Andrews in left field. The single scored two runs to give Florida a 3-2 lead in heartbreaking fashion.
The Florida coaching staff then brought back Stephanie Brombacher, who had not pitched since the first game, to try and finish off the Lady Vols.
Down to its last three outs, Tennessee got an incredible play from Kelly Grieve to get the momentum on the Big Orange's side. Behind in the pitch count, Grieve hit a ball just inside the first base line. The Gator defender was a split second too slow and too high, though, as Kelly contorted her body and slid around and under the tag to reach base safely.
"It was instinct," Grieve said. "I see her coming at me with a high tag, so I just hit the floor and tried to get under it."
That play was the difference maker.
"That was amazing," said senior first baseman Erinn Webb. "It pumped us up so much. That set the tone for the whole inning. It was awesome. She's the leader on the team. She's so determined. For her to put herself out there and dive and be safe, that was just a great effort for her."
Kat Dotson proceeded to draw a walk, and Spigner reached on a fielding error to load the bases with no outs. Tiffany Huff hit a fly ball into the outfield to sacrifice in Grieve for a score, but the play at home was very close. Michelle Moultrie threw a strike from center field to home plate that was right on target, but Grieve slid safely home in between the catcher's legs to tie the game 3-3.
"I was just thinking there's no way in heck that I was going to be out," Grieve said.
After a strikeout by Lauren Gibson, Nicole Kajitani continued her clutch performance by drawing a walk to once again load the bases.
Erinn Webb, who was 0-5 on the day with two strikeouts, was up with a chance to be the heroine for Tennessee. After falling behind in the count 0-2, the contest appeared to be headed for extra innings.
"I just was not going to let myself get out, whatever it took," Webb said. "I wasn't going to get out. I was either going to get a hit or get a walk. I was so determined, and I wanted to do it for my team so bad because we fought back in the seventh inning. I was totally relaxed, totally confident, no doubt in my mind."
Webb battled back against several more Brombacher pitches to draw the bases-loaded walk, clinching the 4-3 win.
Moving forward Weekly thinks this win will help boost Tennessee's morale.
"It has to help their confidence," Weekly said. "When you beat number one, you have to feel good about yourself. That doesn't mean you can go out every game and beat number one, but it means in a playoff game, you've got a shot, and I think that's important."
And that's definitely important considering Tennessee has yet to face the top two teams in the SEC West in Alabama and LSU.
The series finale on Saturday started with Florida placing runners on the corners with no outs; however, rain would end their chances of scoring. Ominous clouds producing thunder and lightning caused the officials to suspend play, and after about an hour of downpour, the game was called off with more severe weather en route for the rest of the day and evening.
Shortly after the game was cancelled, Tennessee 's players started to run and slide across the rain-soaked tarp covering the infield. Karen and Ralph Weekly even joined in on the action.
Tennessee concludes the regular season by hosting No. 12 LSU on May 8-9 at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium in Knoxville.