Florida softball: Gutsy Gators walk it off against Missouri to claim their first SEC series
The eighth-ranked Florida softball team wasn't interested in any consolation prize or moral victory on Sunday when it played the Missouri Tigers for the Gators' first SEC rubber match of the season.
The three-game series, which got underway with a doubleheader Friday, was decided late in the seventh inning of Sunday's matchup at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium as Florida trailed by one run and had been whittled down to its last out.
Sunday's dramatic finish, followed by a celebration at home plate, were two scenes fit for postseason play as the Gators beat the Tigers 4-3 to snatch their first SEC series of the season.
"You've gotta have a little bit of fun after seeing your team get punched in the mouth and come back swinging," said Florida head coach Tim Walton, who bolted to the party at home plate. "We played hard and we competed. There were some good moments."
A look back at Friday:No. 8 Florida opens SEC play, splits doubleheader with Missouri
Winning on the recruiting trail:Tim Walton and the Gators grab top-rated recruiting class on signing day
Here's how it shook out.
Skylar Wallace finds a way, walks it off for the Gators
In his 17th year as head coach, Walton has seen his fair share of competitors come through the Florida locker room. Kelsey Bruder, Stacey Nelson and Lauren Haeger are a few names that come to Walton's mind when asked who sticks out in terms of competitiveness.
But Florida redshirt junior Skylar Wallace is certainly etching her name into the same stone.
"Skylar is way up there," Walton said. "She wants to win."
And in the bottom of the seventh inning as the Gators trailed the Tigers by one run, Wallace put her competitiveness on full display. When Wallace stepped into the batter's box, Florida was down to its final out with the tying run 60 feet away as junior Katie Kistler stood on third.
"With Katie looking at me and Coach Walton, I just knew there was all the confidence in me to get the job done," Wallace said. "Really just taking a deep breath and finding a way."
Wallace quickly found herself behind in a 2-2 count when she struck a pitch up the gut to score Kistler and tie the game at 3.
But competitors don't play to tie or survive into extra innings, so Wallace's job wasn't finished after her RBI.
"We're getting this done right now," Wallace said of her mentality once on base. "It was just finding a way and waiting for the moment to come."
Wallace would steal second base, her 18th of the season. Missouri catcher Megan Moll tried to gun down Wallace, but her throw would escape into the outfield, allowing Wallace to advance to third base, where 60 feet of clay stretched between her and a walk-off win for the Gators.
In a gamble, the Tigers elected to intentionally walk the bases full to get past Florida sluggers Charla Echols and Reagan Walsh.
And while the risk meant getting to pinch hitter Olivia Gigante, whose .239 batting average isn't up to par with Echols' and Walsh's, it also opened up the opportunity for the game to be decided on a wild pitch, which is exactly what happened as Missouri freshman Taylor Pannell hurled an errant pitch, allowing Wallace to score the game-winning run.
"I told (Walton) if it's anywhere away from the catcher, I'm going," Wallace said. "As soon as I saw it was passed, I was taking off."
Florida's bullpen, defense plays sharper
Looking back to Friday, the Gators didn't have their best stuff defensively.
In game one against the Tigers, sophomore pitcher Lexie Delbrey was chased from the circle after giving up three home runs, two by Alex Honnold.
"We kinda took it on our shoulder and had it in the back of our mind," Rylee Trlicek said of the bullpen's mentality after Friday's games. "But at the end of the day, you have to throw what you throw."
Come Sunday, the Gators would watch as the Tigers smacked another home run off veteran Elizabeth Hightower (3.0 IP, 2 K, 2 hits, 2 ER) in the third inning via a solo shot from Julia Crenshaw.
Hightower, who tossed 52 pitches in a long first-inning, was relieved by Trlicek in the top of the fourth. From there, Trlicek and the Gators would force the Tigers to hang zeros in the fourth and fifth frames before giving up a run in the top of the sixth after Missouri loaded the bases with one out.
Florida would go on to notch a perfect three-up-three-down inning in the final frame as Trlicek (4.0 IP, 4 hits, ER) forced the top of Missouri's order to hit a fly out and a pair of groundouts, paving the way for Florida's offense to rally.
"I think this puts so much confidence on the pitchers' backs," Trlicek said. "Like, they got us and we got them. If we keep it to a one- or two-run game, they're going to win it all day long."
The Gators also finished Sunday errorless in the field; on Friday, they committed three uncharacteristic errors.
Gators good with gritty identity
At the start of the season, Florida was having its way with opponents, posting eight run-rule victories in a 10-game span.
"Those are fun," Wallace said of run-rule wins. "But to win this in a grind and have every single body in the dugout just hyping you up, those are what you live for. As much as the run-rules are fun, that's what you want right there."
In their first conference series, the Gators' pair of wins came via two tightly-contested games that saw them come from behind to get the job done.
And while some might grimace at the idea of Florida having to grind out wins like it did over the weekend, those who wear the logo on their chest see an upside.
"I think these gutsy wins kinda bring out our team character," Trlicek said. "Right now I feel like we're all together and all for one and one for all. So that's the good about these kinda games."
Florida returns to action Wednesday night when it travels to DeLand to play Stetson University at 6.