Florida's offense ignites 9-3 win over Kentucky, sending Gators to SEC softball semifinal

Ainslie Lee
Gator Sports
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While first pitch ran more than two hours behind for the second night in a row, the fifth-seeded Florida Gators weren't running behind at all. 

After beating Texas A&M 4-1 on Wednesday night in the opening round of the SEC softball tournament, the Gators returned to the dirt of Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium on Thursday night as they took on the fourth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats. 

With another speedy start to the game, the Gators (43-15) knocked off the Wildcats 9-3, sending Kentucky (35-17) back to Lexington and advancing into the tournament semifinal. 

Here are three takeaways from Florida's win. 

SEC opener:Gators survive and advance in SEC tournament with 4-1 win over Texas A&M

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Gators capitalize on free passes

After suffering a series sweep to Arkansas nearly three weeks ago, Florida head coach Tim Walton mentioned that his lineup wasn't walking enough. 

Against the Razorbacks that weekend, the Gators walked just three times, while Arkansas took 13 free bases. 

"We look very mediocre in plus counts," Walton said after falling to Arkansas in the series' finale. " And give them credit, they're looking to hit. They're not scared. But I do feel like we're backwards at times — we take really good pitches and swing at bad ones."

However, against the Wildcats, patience paid off as the Gators drew seven walks, which was one more than Kentucky's bullpen had given up all season. 

"We gave up too many free passes," Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson said. "When you do something like that to a team that good, it's really, really hard to come back from. I think that was pretty much the story of the game."

Florida's first run of the night came via a bases-loaded walk from the hand of Kentucky pitcher Tatum Spangler, which scratched across freshman Kendra Falby (3-5), who reached on a leadoff single. 

In the top of the second, the Gators notched another pair of walks, which loaded the bases for senior Charla Echols (1-2, 2 RBI walk), who issued a two-RBI ground-rule double.

"I think she's been swinging the bat really well," Walton said of Echols. "School's over, so she's just able to focus on being a softball player."

Florida chases four Kentucky pitchers

Florida's infielder Skylar Wallace (17) celebrates her teammates after her home run in the top of the sixth against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, Thursday, May 12, 2022, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium in Gainesville. The Gators beat the Wildcats 9-3, and advance to the semifinals.

Following Florida's win over Texas A&M Wednesday night, Walton remarked on Kentucky's hearty staff of pitchers. But was he expecting to see a majority of them on Thursday night? Probably not. 

The Gators' lineup was just as lethal on Thursday night as Florida scattered 11 hits, which chased four different Kentucky pitchers out of the circle.

"We're going to do everything in our power to score first, score early," Walton said, alluding to a conversation he had with the team last Saturday. 

Spangler, who started for the Wildcats, saw her night end after just 0.1 inning of action that saw her give up three walks and three runs. 

Spangler was relieved by junior Miranda Stoddard (1.0 IP, 3 hits, 3 runs, 2 walks) who immediately gave up a two-RBI single to UF freshman Reagan Walsh (3-4, 3 RBI), giving the Gators an early 3-0 lead in the first. 

The Gators added two more runs against Stoddard, before jumping on the Wildcats' third pitcher of the night, Stephanie Schoonover (4.0 IP, 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks, 5 K), who was relieved by freshman Alexia Lacatena after giving up back-to-back hits in the top of the sixth. 

But Kentucky's pitching troubles continued as UF junior Skylar Wallace (1-2, 2 walks, HR) smacked a solo home run in the first at-bat Lacatena faced, expanding the Gators' lead to 9-3, which remained the score to the game's end. 

"There was a period of time in there when we didn't have very good at-bats," Walton said. "We swung at pitches that were out of the zone... got a little sideways. But the good part is we also threw up zeros on the other side. I think that's the key."

Rylee Trlicek polishes off Wildcats

Florida's Rylee Trlicek (44) pitches in relief against Kentucky in Game 8 of the SEC Tournament, Thursday, May 12, 2022, at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. The Gators beat the Wildcats 9-3, and advance to the semifinals. [Cyndi Chambers/ Correspondent] 2022

Florida started Thursday night's quarterfinal with its right-handed ace Elizabeth Hightower, who worked through 4.1 innings, gave up five hits, three runs and struck out one. 

Of Hightower's five hits, two of them left the yard as Kentucky's Lauren Johnson (2-4, 2 RBI) shot a two-run home run into Museum Road, which tightened the score to 3-2 heading into the second inning. 

"That pitch just kinda went my way," Johnson said. "Off that bat, I thought that might be the longest home run I've ever hit."

The Wildcats' second home run came off the bat of Emmy Blane (1-3, RBI) in the bottom of the second. 

"Elizabeth gave us everything she had and she was just okay and she knows that," Walton said. "But man, Rylee was just legit."

Walton and the Gators relieved Hightower in the fifth inning and replaced her with junior Rylee Trlicek, who has started to emerge as a closer for Florida. 

Trlicek closed out the game with a 2.2-inning outing that saw her give up two hits, no runs, walk one and strike out one. 

"One of the best things that's happened to Rylee is she now has a role on this team," Walton said. "We just simplified the process and just try to find a way to create a role. 

On to the next

After eliminating Kentucky, Florida will see the winner of Ole Miss-Arkansas, which got underway around 10 p.m. on Thursday night. Florida's semifinal game is slated for a 5:30 p.m. start on Friday (ESPN2). 

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