Florida pitcher Marissa Mesiemore approached the circle Saturday night with three Mississippi State runners on base and no outs.
It was the top of the seventh inning, and the Bushnell, Florida, native was tasked with closing a surprisingly tight game. Mesiemore walked junior shortstop Madisyn Kennedy with five pitches and brought home pinch-runner Allison Florian.
The Bulldogs threatened to upset Florida at home for the second time this season, but Mesiemore had other plans.
She retired senior outfielder Jackie McKenna with a flyout to left field before inducing a double play that gave the Gators an 8-4 win over Mississippi State in their first SEC game of the season.
The No. 4 Gators weren’t expecting to be in that situation.
“I anticipated it to be a good, close game,” said head coach Tim Walton. “Did I expect it to be 8-4? No. Did I think that either one of our teams could score eight? Yes.”
The Bulldogs nearly scored in the second inning when two UF errors and a single by McKenna loaded the bases with one out. However, Florida’s starting pitcher Elizabeth Hightower escaped the jam with an infield fly and a groundout.
In the bottom of the frame, the Gators returned the favor and juiced the bases with no outs on the board. Freshman Reagan Walsh sparked the offense with a right-field single before senior Cheyenne Lindsey and sophomore Avery Goelz hit consecutive singles.
Florida’s next three batters, however, were unable to move the runners.
Catcher Emily Wilkie struck out swinging, and outfielder Katie Kistler hit a flyout to shallow center field. Freshman Kendra Falby faced a full count but struck out looking to frustrate the Gators' early scoring hopes.
Mississippi State took the lead in the third following a shaky inning from Hightower. She allowed two singles and a walk before uncharacteristically throwing a wild pitch that let Bulldog’s catcher Mia Davidson cross the plate.
In the fourth frame, the Bulldogs extended their lead to three on the heels of three singles and a wild pitch. Junior infielder Shea Moreno and freshman first baseman Riley Hull did the damage with a single and a run each.
Hightower struggled to find the strike zone all game due to severe wind and sunlight. Many of her pitches went high or bounced off the ground before reaching the plate. She allowed six hits and three runs in four innings, and 45 of her 103 pitches landed outside the strike zone.
“Elizabeth wasn't very good today and she knows that,” Walton said.
Florida got on the board with two runs in the fourth inning.
Lindsey got a leadoff double to center-right field before Goelz turned in a single to first base. With runners in the corners, Bulldogs pitcher Kenley Hawk threw a wild pitch that allowed Lindsey to score. Goelz later crossed the dish on a left-field single by Falby to make it 3-2.
The Gators’ offense really found its groove in the fifth inning with six runs on seven hits.
Wallace singled twice, scored the tying run and brought in two runners in her second at-bat of the frame. Echols got a double and scored thanks to an RBI single by Lindsey. Catcher Sam Roe brought in Lindsey with a triple, and outfielder Katie Kistler got an RBI double after Roe.
The team’s rally didn’t come out of anywhere.
“We need to show just how much grit we have to dig deep and pull it out,” Lindsey said. “We’re down, but we're good. We can score runs.”
Freshman pitcher Lexie Delbrey kept the Bulldogs at bay for two innings. She retired the side in the fifth and delivered three strikeouts the following frame. However, she struggled to close the game, loading the bases in the seventh.
She gave up a single, a walk and a hit-by-pitch before Mesiemore got the save.
Florida returns to action Sunday at 4 p.m. for its second matchup against Mississippi State. The game will be aired on the SEC Network.
Jose Tovar is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Florida specializing in sports and media. He has covered softball and soccer as a beat writer and aspires to work in the sports media industry.