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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Gardiner's walk-off grand slam sends Gators to WCWS championship series

OKLAHOMA CITY - With her team down by three, two outs on the board and the bases loaded, Ali Gardiner stepped up to the plate in the midst of the worst hitting slump of her career.

Gardiner, who broke the school batting average record last season after hitting .407 on the year, was 0 for her last 15 and was the only starter to not reach base in the tournament before the seventh inning Sunday night.

But she put all that aside and took a 2-1 screwball from Alabama's Kelsi Dunne just over the left-field fence for a walk-off grand slam that pushed the No. 1 Gators (63-3) past Alabama 6-5 and into the best-of-three championship series of the WCWS against third-seeded Washington.

"This team wants it so bad. With two outs, one out, down by seven, down by 15, we're going to find a way," Gardiner said. "We just want this so bad. And I'm so glad that after a whole year of them picking me up that I could finally pick my team up."

Gardiner's slam, the first of her career and the Gators' 12th of the season, drove in second baseman Aja Paculba, left fielder Francesca Enea and shortstop Megan Bush, who were among the first to start the ensuing dogpile at home plate celebrating the program's first-ever championship series berth.

It was enough to make Wally Gardiner, Ali's father, cry.

"His dream was always to see me in a Gator uniform, and I was here and I was able to push our team to where we wanted to go," Gardiner said. "It means a lot. To see my dad, who doesn't show much emotion - and the last few days we haven't talked much - it meant a lot to me."

Fourth-seeded Alabama (54-11) started off the game hitting pitcher Stacey Nelson better than anyone had all postseason. The four hits Nelson allowed in the first three innings were more than she had given up in the last two games combined.

But Nelson was good enough through four innings to maintain a 2-1 lead following right fielder Kelsey Bruder's 16th home run of the season in the bottom of the fourth.

But the Tide grabbed hold of the momentum in the fifth inning, racking up four runs off Nelson and leaving the Gators seemingly out of the game. But as the team has done all year, UF persevered and pulled out the victory.

"I've been coaching softball now for 11 years, and in my 11 years I have never seen a team with so much determination and fight," UF coach Tim Walton said. "No matter if we're getting outplayed, outhit, outscored, it doesn't matter. We always know that we're going to have a good chance."

Sophomore pitcher Stephanie Brombacher (22-0, 0.77 ERA) took the ball in the sixth and held the Tide scoreless, knowing that her offense - which has scored all 10 of its runs in the WCWS on home runs - could put the winning runs across the plate.

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"I was just hoping I'd get a chance and a shot," Brombacher said. "Our team can hit the longball, and I knew that if I could keep us within striking distance that we'd score."

Game 1 of the WCWS championship series will be played Monday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN2. The Gators and Huskies met once this year, and Washington came out on top 1-0 in nine-innings behind a two-hit performance by pitcher Danielle Lawrie.

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