Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Florida buries its painful past during a fun run to the WCWS championship series – ESPN

Gators’ Delanie Gourley talks about leading her team to a 5-2 win over Washington in her first career start in the Women’s College World Series.

OKLAHOMA CITY — With her team’s season on the line for the second time in less than a week, Florida sophomore Amanda Lorenz sent teammate Delanie Gourley a text message in the hours before a super regional elimination game against Alabama on May 26. It was part motivation, as might be expected in such a moment, but also part apology to a pitcher on behalf of those supposed to support her.

“You keep us in this game, and I promise somehow, some way, we’re going to get you a run,” Lorenz said of the message she sent. “Just keep us in this game. I know we haven’t been getting you the runs, but it’s starting now. We’ll figure it out.”

Spoiler alert: Florida will take the field Monday as one of only two teams still playing softball at the Women’s College World Series.

Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman via AP

The Florida bats have exploded for 20 runs so far in Oklahoma City.

A two-run home run from Lorenz provided all of Florida’s runs that day against Alabama, all it needed to stave off elimination. Two more runs the next day completed the comeback. Two comebacks, really. The one in the best-of-three series against the Tide and one that began a year earlier when the tournament’s top seed watched a home run sail into the Gainesville night and end its season before it made it to Oklahoma City.

Now the championship that so painfully, not to mention prematurely, evaded the Gators a season ago is again within grasp. No. 1 Florida’s 5-2 win over No. 6 Washington in Sunday’s World Series semifinal secured passage to the best-of-three championship series that begins Monday night.

And if the offense didn’t lead the way, a starring role all but impossible for a group that shares the field with one of the best pitching staffs in softball history, Florida batters aren’t just along for the ride this week. As Lorenz promised, they figured it out.

And all of a sudden, Florida doesn’t look like a team with a whole lot of demons left to exorcise. It just looks like a team having fun.

“This is a big deal playing on this stage, and the team that plays the most normal has got the best chance to win,” Florida coach Tim Walton said. “I thought we’ve been able to do that. I think our players have really been able to buy into themselves and be confident. Some people peak in the beginning of the season, some teams peak in the middle of the season, some teams never peak. If your team can peak at the right time and get the right kind of confidence toward the end, you’ve got a chance. Now we’ve got our team in a position to have a chance.”

While players and coaches like to suggest any season exists in a vacuum, unaffected by events good or bad in the past, Florida’s current season needs the context of what came before. With a chance to become the first team other than UCLA to win three consecutive titles, a dynastic run in a sport that seemed to have no more room for dynasties, Florida instead became the first No. 1 overall seed swept in a super regional.

I watched every World Series game last year, and I was mad the entire time.

Delanie Gourley

Georgia’s walk-off home run punctuated the pain and kept the Gators from Oklahoma City.

“I watched every World Series game last year, and I was mad the entire time,” Gourley said of the week that was supposed to belong to the Gators. “It was when the World Series was over last year that I was finally like, ‘All right, I’ll get it next year.’ I had to use a few solid days to just stay mad, stay sad. Because we love this game, we’re competitors.”

That kind of loss can linger longer than a few days, it can fester for weeks, months and years in the psyche. All the more because the Gators, for all the pitching depth offered by Gourley, Kelly Barnhill and Aleshia Ocasio, had to replace so much of their offense. It was always going to be a challenge. It became a challenge haunted by the ghosts of a missed opportunity.

Florida’s offense has been a liability only in relative terms. In conference play in the deepest league in the country, Florida led the SEC in on-base percentage and runs and ranked second in slugging percentage. But compared to past editions, including that of a season ago, it was a lineup short on power and prone to leaving outcomes in doubt. That lineup showcased both traits in leaving the Gators to face three elimination games across the regional and super regional rounds.

It was a team that was almost literally unbeatable when it scored three runs. But only then.

“They’ve carried us here,” Lorenz said of the pitchers. “It’s no secret they’ve carried us here.”

Earlier this week, Walton only half-jokingly suggested the pitching was too good.

“Part of it might be we had to face our pitchers all fall long,” the coach said. “Maybe we went into the season with a little lack of confidence. So maybe we have to change it up and go a little [pitching]-machine style next year and give them more confidence.”

Yet somehow the team that averaged barely two runs per game in three regional games against Oklahoma State and barely one run per game in three super regional games against Alabama took Oklahoma City by storm through its first three games in this World Series.

They scored more runs against Texas A&M, LSU and Washington (20) than not only the postseason three-game sets against Oklahoma State and Alabama, but also five of their seven SEC three-game series.

“This sport is hard,” Florida’s Chelsea Herndon said. “You’re going to fail more than you’re ever going to succeed in this sport. Especially in the SEC, you have to have a short memory and forget if we were ever in a slump or anything like that. … This is a once-in-lifetime thing.”

Go back to the first inning, when Lorenz chased a Taran Alvelo pitch up in the zone, a rare strikeout for Florida’s best hitter and the one constant run producer in the postseason. An inning later, with a runner on third base, she stayed on top of a pitch up in the zone and powered it into center field for an RBI single. Or look at Kvistad falling behind with an 0-2 count in her first at-bat before working it even at 2-2 and hitting a home run on the eighth pitch. Or Janell Wheaton working the count full in the fifth inning before coming up with an RBI single.

Florida made Alvelo throw 36 pitches in the first inning Sunday. Texas A&M pitchers threw 113 pitches in just five innings in the World Series opener. Even LSU’s efficient staff threw 130 pitches. This Florida team might not hit home runs at quite the same rate as previous teams, but it is making pitchers work this week in the same way so many patient Florida lineups have done over the years.

Now consider that Lorenz and Kvistad are sophomores playing in their first World Series. Or that Wheaton won a national title as a freshman but played sparingly that week. Maybe it is a lineup that needed the past four months, and their challenges, to be ready.

“I’m not going to get myself out on her pitch,” Lorenz said of her approach to hitting. “[Walton] always gets a little mad at me because sometimes I’ve got to give a little credit to the pitcher. I say, ‘No, I got myself out on that pitch, she didn’t get me out.’ But that’s a big thing I learned last year, coming into this year. It’s college softball, I play for the University of Florida, I’m going to get out. It’s not easy.”

Florida is a team built this season around its pitchers. In her first World Series start, a statistical oddity for someone already the winning pitcher in both a World Series clincher and a world championship clincher for Team USA, Gourley was fantastic. She was an error away from a one-hit shutout. She hasn’t allowed an earned run in more than 60 innings. And she isn’t the national player of the year on the staff. That’s Barnhill.

Florida might be playing Monday night even if it followed the same path it took to get to Oklahoma City. But that version of the Gators wouldn’t be having as much fun. That team would still have demons to deal with. This team just has softball games to play.

“We know we’re not the home run teams we’ve had in past years, but that’s fine, that’s not our identity,” Gourley said. “If we can just get a few runs a game, we’re good, we’re set. Because I know, when I’m throwing, even if it is a 0-0 game, all I want to do is get the fastest three outs I can, so we can come in and try and score. With the way they’ve reassured us, like, ‘Hey, we’ll get them, they will come,’ I trust them with everything.

“Just that trust is what keeps us from stressing out. We get it done, some way or another.”

Just as Lorenz promised in that text message.

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