'Phase 3': Florida Gators softball turns attention to postseason, SEC Tournament

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

You know, for a mere sophomore, Florida Gators outfielder Kendra Falby has a good head on her shoulders.

Perhaps that's because she and the Gators made a deep run to the Women's College Series during her freshman campaign, forcing Falby to become seasoned quickly.

Falby continues to apply the wisdom she learned in 2022 to this season, which has been full of ups and downs. Accordingly, Falby understands what she and the Gators have done in the regular season carries very little weight as they approach the postseason. That gets underway Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament in Arkansas' Bogle Park.

"I put it in phases because I feel like every single phase is different," Falby said. "Now, Phase 3, nothing matters. It doesn’t matter what you did in the regular season. At all."

Welcome to Phase 3, softball fans.

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Here are three things the Gators will need to do to make a run in the SEC Tournament, which will certainly help Florida's seeding as NCAA Regionals approach.

Florida's bullpen needs to crank it up a notch

Florida Gators infielder Skylar Wallace (17) claps for a teammate at the plate. The Florida women’s softball team hosted FSU at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium in Gainesville, FL on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. The Seminoles defeated the Gators 8-7.  [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]

It's not a secret. Florida's pitching has been the weakest link all season.

The Gators got a raw deal out the gate as sophomore Lexie Delbrey suffered an injury in the final game of last season, ripping a proper offseason of development from her grip. And it has certainly shown.

In the preseason, Florida head coach Tim Walton acknowledged the importance of Delbrey's role.

"She’s the key component to changing the (opponent’s) offense,” Walton said. “She’s got the ability to be a double-digit strikeout kind of kid. That being said, she hasn’t pitched since that UCLA game (in 2022), so it’s been kind of a question mark."

Unfortunately, that key component hasn't come around.

During the regular season, Delbrey appeared in 76.2 innings and maintained an ERA of 3.10. The real issue, however, has been her lack of control. In 20 appearances, she's walked 34 batters and has hit 20 more.

Without Delbrey at her full potential, Florida has had to rely heavily on fifth-year senior Elizabeth Hightower and senior Rylee Trlicek. Both have showed spurts of good and spurts of bad. They, too, have had issues giving up free passes this season.

If you were to label one of Florida's pitchers the ace, the distinction would likely go to Hightower, who has started 27 games with a 3.25 ERA across 135.2 innings. Hightower leads the staff with 80 strikeouts, but also leads with walks (67) and has given up the most home runs (19).

On May 3, the Gators were an eyelash from knocking off the third-ranked Florida State Seminoles. But once again, the pitching faltered, giving up five walks as the 'Noles took a quick 3-0 lead. Later in the fifth inning, too many pitches were left over the plate, allowing FSU to string together hits and generate a four-run inning that ultimately erased Florida's lead for good.

"It's the same old stuff," Walton said after the 8-7 loss to FSU. "Self-induced trauma, right?"

If the Gators want to make a run in the SEC Tournament and beyond, their arms in the circle will have to limit the self-induced trauma. That starts with limiting the number of free passes and keeping the ball in the park.

One thing worth noting is that Florida has been swept by one SEC team this season − regular-season champ Tennessee. Because the conference tournament isn't played in series, it becomes harder for lineups to make timely adjustments to pitching, which we've seen be the case when teams have battled Florida's shallow bullpen.

Gators need to find the scoreboard early

If you've paid any attention to this Florida team, you've likely noticed by now that it looks much different when it's playing out front.

"If we score early in the game, the Florida Gators offense changes," Walton said prior to Florida's series against Georgia in April. "It changes in a big way."

When Florida has scored in the first two frames against SEC opponents, the Gators are 7-3. Meanwhile, when the Gators don't score a run in the first two innings against SEC opponents, they're 4-10.

Additionally, in conference games that have seen Florida trailing heading to the third inning, the Gators are 9-3.

The conclusion? Florida must find the scoreboard early in the ballgame. But that's nothing Walton and the Gators don't already know.

"To be honest with you, it's night and day," said Walton when asked how the team looks different with early runs on the board. "I don't see a lot mechanically, although confidence does impact mechanics at times. ... We're pedal to the metal. When we go, we go."

Florida needs production from 1 through 9

It was made pretty clear in the preseason that the Gators' lineup would be this team's strong suit. And the regular season proved that to be true and then some.

Florida leads the SEC in batting average (.322), runs (362) and is second in hits (438), only behind LSU (447).

The catalyst of the Gators' offense comes from the leadoff spot in redshirt junior Skylar Wallace, who is likely well on her way to grabbing the SEC Player of the Year honor.

Not only does Wallace lead the conference in batting average (.455), slugging (1.030), triples (8) and total bases (136), she also ranks second in the SEC in on-base percentage (.604), runs scored (66), walks (46) and stolen bases (30).

Wallace's slugging mark also leads the nation, while her 18 home runs rank third in the SEC.

She also isn't a bad choice to get the offense rolling.

On the heels of Wallace is fifth-year senior Charla Echols and sophomore Reagan Walsh − who have had wildly productive seasons from the plate.

Echols (.358) stands as the league's RBI leader with 61. Walsh (.333) boasts the second-most doubles on the team with 11 and has been clutch all season, notching a pair of walk-off hits against Auburn and Ole Miss.

At the bottom of Florida's lineup is Falby, who recently cemented herself in the No. 9 hole, where Walton hopes she's able to turn the lineup over and pass the bat back to Wallace. For the most part, it's worked as Falby maintains the team's second-best .392 average.

Those in the No. 4 through No. 8 spots, however, have been up and down.

Pal Egan, Avery Goelz, Katie Kistler, Sarah Longley and Sam Roe have been the most frequent fliers in those spots, while junior Emily Wilkie has recently worked her way into the lineup and onto first base. In April, Wilkie popped a grand slam in the bottom of the seventh inning to lift the Gators over the USF Bulls.

Should the Gators want to make a run through the SEC Tournament, Falby, Wallace, Echols and Walsh can't shoulder the entire load.

We'll see if the eighth-seeded Gators rise to the occasion Wednesday night at 8 as they take on the No. 9 Kentucky Wildcats for a rematch of last weekend's series in Lexington. The winner advances to the quarterfinals, where Tennessee will be waiting Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

"Now you just go out and play softball," Falby said of Phase 3. "You scratch and claw. Everyone has to scratch and claw because it’s one and done."