Gators softball: No. 15 Florida clinches series with 6-3 win over No. 19 Auburn
After Thursday night's extra-inning thriller, the 15th-ranked Florida Gators softball team returned to Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium Friday night for game two of a three-game SEC series against the 19th-ranked Auburn Tigers.
After dropping its last two SEC series to Arkansas and South Carolina and picking up the series-opening win against Auburn Thursday, Florida had an opportunity to clinch the series.
And thanks to a brilliant performance from their field and consistency at the plate, the Gators beat the Tigers 6-3, improving to 28-9 and 6-5 in the SEC.
Here's how it happened.
Gators' defense takes the shape of a brick wall
Coming into this year, Florida head coach Tim Walton believed he'd field an offensive-heavy team.
While the Gators' lineup has lived up to that hype, it was Florida's defense that stole the show Friday.
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To start the top of the second inning, Auburn's Makayla Packer roped a line drive to third baseman Charla Echols, who Walton gushed about earlier in the week.
"I've done this for a long time and I haven't seen a third baseman play as well as she's played this year," Walton said. "You're just bound to be bad at some point in time and she's been amazing."
Without flinching, Echols gloved Packer's hit, notching the first of three web gems.
Come the fifth inning, it was the outfield's turn to cause a ruckus as sophomore centerfielder Kendra Falby retreated to the centerfield warning track and leaped and caught a ball that would've undoubtedly gone for extra bases, if not left the yard.
In Auburn's next at-bat, KK McCrary sent a hard-hit line drive only to see junior Skylar Wallace climb the ladder to come away with a catch that very few in the country likely could replicate.
"It's just one after another, after another, after another," Walton said. "I think that's been pretty fun to watch. But I think the message to our pitchers is keep the ball in the ball park. You do that and these guys have a chance to make some good plays."
Gators pitchers keep Auburn from playing small ball
While the Tigers have been able to score runs against the Gators, it hasn't been due to consistent offensive production.
In Thursday's series opener, Auburn scored via a Florida error and a solo home run as the Tigers tallied five hits through eight innings.
On Friday, the Tigers would see the same tandem of pitchers they saw Thursday night as fifth-year senior Elizabeth Hightower and senior Rylee Trlicek split action with Hightower getting the start.
"If you ask me, I think Elizabeth is the best matchup for Auburn," Walton said of Hightower, who pitched seven innings Thursday and four innings Friday.
Hightower's night ended in the top of the fifth after she gave up five hits, three runs and three walks.
And while, the Tigers were able to put more balls into play Friday as they recorded seven hits, only two would score runs − and they'd come off the same bat.
Sophomore Nelia Peralta, the leadoff hitter who has a team-high .343 average, popped two home runs, one in the third inning and one in the fifth.
"Obviously we've given up three runs to them via the home run," Walton said. "We've gotta do a better job of that."
Florida's lineup looked steady in Game 2
The Gators were on the heels of back-to-back games that saw their batters strike out 15 and 12 times, respectively. What might sound concerning to some, doesn't bug Florida's head coach.
"It says a little bit more, in my opinion about (the opposing pitcher) than it does about us," he said. "We're not allergic to changeups, we're not allergic to rise balls ... none of that stuff really concerns me."
Friday's performance proved the Gators' offensive lull wasn't one that would stick as Florida's lineup scattered six hits while avoiding any strikeouts.
Echols led the charge from the plate with a 2-for-4 performance and three RBIs.
Florida graduate transfer Pal Egan also impressed as she knocked her fifth home run of the season and the first in SEC play.
"It's a really surreal feeling being able to play with girls that are wearing the Gator jersey," said Egan, who got her start in junior college after always wanting to play for Walton and the Gators. "The fact that I get to wear one, it's super exciting."