No luck in Knoxville: Florida softball suffers first SEC sweep of the season
The 13th-ranked Florida Gators softball team (32-14, 8-10 SEC) knew it would have its hands full when it entered Tennessee's Sherri Parker Lee Stadium, where the fourth-ranked Tennessee Lady Vols (38-5, 16-2 SEC) awaited.
It was a tough welcome for Florida on Saturday as the Gators were run-ruled 9-1 in five innings.
However, Florida appeared to settle in game two as it mounted a five-run lead heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, only to watch Tennessee string together a seven-run inning to come back for an 11-10 win.
Come Monday's series finale, the story was much of the same as the Gators sprinted out to a quick lead, only to be outscored 6-1 in the latter half of the game to drop the final game 10-6 and suffer their first SEC sweep of the season.
After the sweep in Knoxville, Florida falls back under .500 in conference play.
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Here's what we learned.
Gators' pitching problems exposed against Lady Vols
It was a tough weekend to be a part of the Gators' bullpen as the Lady Vols exploited issues shown here and there all season.
As Florida head coach Tim Walton pointed out in the preseason, much of Florida's pitching success would depend on sophomore Lexie Delbrey, who didn't get a full offseason to train and develop after getting banged up late last season.
And like her season, Florida's pitching performances have been very much up and down. Unfortunately for the Gators, their bullpen picked a tough weekend to descend into what might be their deepest valley of the season.
Walton and the Gators watched as the four different pitchers they fielded combined for 14 walks and hit seven batters over the weekend, allowing the Lady Vols to take 21 free bases throughout the series. In comparison, Tennessee gave up 11 free bases, including eight walks in Saturday's contest.
Tennessee's 21 free passes were the most given up by Florida in a three-game series all year. The Gators allowed South Carolina to take 18 free bags as the Gamecocks went on to win the series, 2-1.
Florida senior Rylee Trlicek shouldered much of the load over the weekend, hurling 7.1 innings, giving up 14 hits, 12 earned runs, five free passes and tallying four strikeouts.
Meanwhile, fifth-year righty Elizabeth Hightower appeared in each of the weekend's games, combining for five innings that saw her give up seven hits, seven free passes, nine earned runs and striking out seven.
Florida's offense flexes fire power
Walton and the Gators knew their lineup was going to be their strong suit. And Florida put that on display early in the year as it consistently run-ruled opponents.
Once the conference schedule rolled around, the Gators took a few lumps but have since returned as a heavy hitters. Florida's weekend in Knoxville was no different.
Coming into the weekend, Tennessee's pitching staff had given up 10 home runs. By the time the Gators left Knoxville, that number was 15 as Skylar Wallace, Charla Echols and Emily Wilkie each hit home runs.
Thanks to Florida's long balls, the Gators were able to mount leads in the second and third games of the series. However, the Lady Vols always found a way to answer.
While Florida combined for 21 hits, Tennessee tallied 27 hits, including five home runs.
Tennessee junior Rylie West went 4-for-10 with nine RBIs and two home runs, while senior Kiki Miloy went 4-for-9 with three RBIs and a home run.
Skylar Wallace's unbelievable stretch continues
Anyone who knows Florida redshirt junior Skylar Wallace knows she couldn't care less about her individual numbers if her team isn't winning.
While that's noble, the rest of the college softball world is paying attention to Wallace's tear − and for good reason.
After video game-like performances in Florida's series win over Georgia last weekend, Wallace's stock skyrocketed. That cemented her place in the conversation for player of the year − in the SEC and the NCAA.
Wallace popped four home runs against the Bulldogs last weekend, only to follow with three more in Knoxville.
Florida's starting shortstop turned in multi-hit efforts in each of her performances against Tennessee, going 6-for-10 on the weekend with six RBIs and three home runs − one in each game. Wallace now has seven home runs in her last seven games, bringing her season total to 16.
Wallace boasts a season batting average of .482, which leads the SEC. But making her season even more impressive is her in-conference average of .529.
On April 19, Wallace was tabbed as a Top 25 finalist for USA Softball's Collegiate Player of the Year. The honor came one day after being named the SEC and NFCA's Player of the Week.