Gators softball: What to watch for as Florida looks to continue its roll in the WCWS

Ainslie Lee
Gator Sports

The Florida Gators softball team continued its postseason roll on Thursday night as fifth-year senior pitcher Natalie Lugo pitched a gem in relief of freshman Lexie Delbrey and the Florida lineup continued to produce hits from spots one through nine. 

Thursday's 7-1 win over Oregon State could be the most well-rounded game Florida had put together all season as the 14th-ranked Gators (48-17) went on scatter 13 hits, tally six strikeouts and give up just one earned run, followed by six scoreless innings. 

"I feel really good. Again, our defense is obviously electric. There's some really tough hops out there today, and we made some really nice plays," Florida head coach Tim Walton said. "We hit a lot of singles, which is hard to score runs at times, but our team batting average is probably close to .320 now, and I think these guys are doing a good job have being who they are, and I think that's been fun for me."

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As the Gators stay in the winner's bracket of the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, they now look to tonight (7 p.m., ESPN) when they'll take on the OSU of the Midwest, the seventh-seeded Oklahoma State Cowgirls, who won Thursday's nightcap with a 4-2 come-from-behind victory over Arizona. 

Here's what to watch for in today's battle.

Can Gators stay hot against Cowgirls' bullpen?

Oklahoma State starter Kelly Maxwell pitches in the first inning of an NCAA softball Women's College World Series game against Arizona on Thursday, June 2, 2022, in Oklahoma City.

Since playing in the NCAA Tournament, the Gators have outscored their opponents 54-11 and have generated 75 hits during a span of seven games that have undoubtedly seen Florida's lineup play its best softball of the season. 

But can UF keep it going against Oklahoma State's talented bullpen?

The Cowgirls (46-12) went with redshirt junior Kelly Maxwell in Thursday night's win, where Maxwell went the distance and tallied 14 strikeouts. The Wildcats were able to notch just five hits against Maxwell and scratched across a pair of runs after Sharlize Palacios smacked a two-run home run. 

Maxwell generally relies on her change-up to put down batters. But on Thursday, she  admitted her change-up wasn't working and that she had to turn to her rise ball. 

With a day between games, it's possible that the Gators see Maxwell (1.19 ERA) again. Or, Oklahoma State could bring fifth-year Morgan Day (2.56 ERA) to the circle. 

Regardless of who gets the nod, Florida's lineup will need to be ready for a level of pitching that Oregon State didn't have — especially considering Mariah Mazon, Oregon State's ace, was unavailable on Thursday. 

Pitching: Who's hot? Who's not?

There's been a seismic shift within the Gators pitching staff. 

Florida senior Elizabeth Hightower spent much of the regular season regarded as the Gators' ace, who leads the team in innings pitched with 163.2.

However, since being chased by Virginia Tech in the second inning of Game 1 of the Blacksburg Super Regional, Hightower has yet to return to the circle for the Gators. 

Instead, it's been the Lexie Delbrey and Natalie Lugo show. 

Delbrey, a freshman, has been on some big stages through the last three games having started both must-win games in Blacksburg, followed by the WCWS first game Thursday. 

But after giving up a run in the first inning and allowing the Beavers to load the bases with no outs in the second inning, Oregon State successfully chased Delbrey, only to be greeted with one of the best performances of Lugo's career. 

Lugo pitched for six innings against the Beavers and gave up one hit, no runs and struck out six to secure the win. 

"Lexie did a good job ... but Natalie has just — she's hot right now," Walton said. "Who puts a kid in in the second inning? She's just been doing it for us, and I'm really happy for her because she works really hard, and she's had a good season."

So perhaps the question isn't, "Who's going to start against the Cowgirls?"

Maybe it's, "Who's going to be hot against the Cowgirls?"

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A look at the lineup cards

If the Gators can continue to produce at the level they have been throughout the postseason, they should be considered the better-hitting team. 

Florida maintains a team batting average of .319, compared to Oklahoma State's .295 and the Gators have six batters above .300, compared to the Cowgirls' five. 

For the Gators, it's been the consistency of redshirt junior Skylar Wallace, freshman Kendra Falby and fifth-year Hannah Adams that has bolstered Florida's offensive production to new heights. 

Sprinkle in the fact that senior Charla Echols, who went 2-for-4 with a home run against Oregon State, is finding her stride, along with sophomore Avery Goelz after a 2-for-3, three-RBI night, and the Gators' lineup is looking about as well-rounded as any in the country. 

"I'm really happy with the way Charla plays," Walton said. "Just getting done with the school year, just getting everything out of the way, and now it's just play ball. All she's focused on is just winning the next game and what she's doing. Her at-bats have been really good."

In the other dugout, what the Cowgirls might lack in consistency, they find in power. Oklahoma State has driven 30 more home runs out of the park than the Gators. 

After all, it was a three-run home run by junior Karli Petty in the sixth inning that led the Cowgirls to a come-from-behind win over Arizona on Thursday night. 

However, it's important to note that Oklahoma State's leadoff hitter Chelsea Alexander has gone 1-for-10 with one walk in her last three games. Likewise, the Cowgirls' three-hole hitter, Katelynn Carwile, is in a slump, having gone 1-for-9 in her last three games. 

Oklahoma State's offensive threat resides in the bats of Miranda Elish and Sydney Pennington, who hit from the four- and five-holes and have gone for a combined 7-of-16 through the last three games.