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Florida softball even better than last year's team

4/30/2013

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When a team wins 112 games out of 120 in less than two full seasons, odds are its going to win them in just about every conceivable manner.

And that includes in dramatic fashion, even if they all seem to be coming at once for the University of Florida.

The nation's top-ranked softball team looked the part in the finale of a weekend series at Kentucky shortened to two games by weather. The Gators pounded out nine hits and sophomore pitcher Stephanie Brombacher faced just one batter more than the minimum in a 6-0 win. But the drama came in a 1-0 extra-inning win in the opening game of Saturday's doubleheader -- the third time in eight days that Florida came up with the eventual winning run in its final at-bat.

The win was the team's first by a 1-0 score this season and just the second by a one-run margin of any kind. And for a team that didn't get its first and only hit until the ninth inning, it was the Gators' least prolific hitting display since Monica Abbott one-hit them in 2007.

"They help and they hurt," coach Tim Walton said of the narrow escapes. "They help us in regard to being able to play in close games, play in tight games like we play at the postseason levels, when you play those good teams that have outstanding pitchers. So it helps us in that regard. It hurts us in a way -- you know, we haven't been no-hit like that in a long time, for that many innings. But I think ultimately we found a way to win at the end, manufactured a run. So it shows that we can manufacture runs, and then obviously we got back to our game plan the second game.

"There are obviously some things we've got to do a better job of, one through nine in the lineup, but overall, sometimes you've just got to give the other team credit."

Player of the Year candidate junior Francesca Enea provided Wednesday's winner against Florida State in extra innings and broke the program's career home run record -- with more than a season to spare -- with two in Saturday's finale against Kentucky. But the trip to Lexington also offered sophomore Kelsey Bruder a stage to play the hero in conference play for the second weekend in a row, seven days after her walk-off grand slam capped a five-run bottom of the seventh in a 6-2 win against Mississippi State.

Saturday's sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth that scored pinch runner Le-Net Franklin wasn't quite as dramatic, but it was the first ball the Gators managed to get in the air in fair territory in nine innings against Kentucky freshman Rachel Riley.

Bruder finished the doubleheader with one hit, two walks and the pivotal sacrifice fly and is hitting .343 this season and .358 in SEC play. All of that from someone who had just six hits in 45 at-bats as a freshman (although for fans of small sample sizes, two of those were doubles and another was a home run).

"She was a big-time hitter coming in out of high school," Walton said. "[We] just didn't have a place to play her last year, so she just didn't ever really get in the lineup and get confident. Now she's been in the lineup every day, every inning of every game, and whether she's 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, she knows she's playing. And I think that's really made a difference for her."

And on a team that seems to trade on its familiarity after returning eight starting position players (although Kim Waleszonia remains out with a leg injury) and both pitchers, Bruder typifies why Florida's continuity makes it all too easy to miss that this team is actually more prolific than the group that won 70 games last season.

Admittedly, tough innings against tough pitchers remain in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments, but the Gators have improved their slugging percentage from .468 last season to .544 this season and their on-base percentage from .391 last season to .428 this season. (Both of last season's marks were school records in Gainesville.)

On top of that, consider this strikingly familiar progression:

Arizona State 2007

.461 slugging percentage, .385 on-base percentage

Arizona State 2008

.549 slugging percentage, .428 on-base percentage

And the Gators have a better defense and a more reliable No. 2 pitcher in Brombacher (now 36-0 in her career) than last year's champs had en route to the title.

The Gators won't play enough games to match last season's win total, and Friday's washout means they won't get enough games in to match last season's 28-1 SEC record. But those aren't the numbers that tell us this year's team isn't just better than last season's team, it's significantly better.

• Kentucky couldn't pull off the upset, but coach Rachel Lawson has come up with an impressive young core of talent in just her second season. Despite drawing only relief duty as she rounds back into form after a minor leg injury, de facto freshman ace Chanda Bell showed a nice changeup to go with the rise ball and breaking pitches that have earned her the program's single-season strikeout record in less than her first full season.

But the star on this day was Riley, who nearly pulled off the no-hitter against one of the nation's most potent offenses in just her second collegiate start (the first coming earlier this week in a 6-5 win against Tennessee). Riley wasn't overpowering, but masterful wouldn't be an exaggeration for a pitcher who coaxed groundball after groundball out of the Gators.

Walton said he wasn't displeased with how his hitter adjusted, and they made Kentucky's infield -- especially star shortstop Molly Johnson -- work all afternoon on hard grounders. But a pitcher who can keep the Gators tethered to terra firma is doing something right.

"I think ultimately a lot of our kids did have different locations in the batter's box and made good adjustments," Walton said. "We just didn't get it done."

At this point, if Kentucky doesn't deserve an NCAA at-large bid, I'm missing something.