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Monday, January 30, 2023

Florida steals series win from Auburn in a defensive battle

The Gators cracked the Tigers pitching strategy for late-game comeback

Senior Elizabeth Hightower, catcher Sam Roe and the No. 7 Florida Gators stole the series from the No. 17 Auburn Tigers Sunday
Senior Elizabeth Hightower, catcher Sam Roe and the No. 7 Florida Gators stole the series from the No. 17 Auburn Tigers Sunday

After a bounce-back victory over the Tigers the previous night, Florida softball returned to Jane B. Moore Field in an attempt to snag the series Sunday. 

The No. 7 Florida Gators (30-6, 7-5 SEC) won the rubber match against the No. 17 Auburn Tigers (29-6, 7-5 SEC), gaining their 14th-straight series win against the Tigers. 

Florida senior pitcher Elizabeth Hightower and Auburn sophomore Maddie Penta recorded stellar performances through the first two innings, using their team’s defensive strategies to their advantage and keeping the game scoreless.

The right-handed pitcher tossed her second shutout of the season through seven innings worked, striking out a total of five Auburn Tigers. 

Hightower began to lose her stride once she gave up walks to freshman Nelia Peralta and junior Lindsey Garcia in the bottom of the first. Rather than trusting her rise ball, Hightower looked off trying to deliver pitches perfectly in the strike zone. 

Florida head coach Tim Walton visited the circle to console his ace. Hightower dealt nearly two perfect pitches and snagged a line drive that was spiraling directly toward her face to retire AU freshman Aubrie Lisenby and end the first inning. 

In the bottom of the third, sophomore Makayla Packer dinked a questionable bunt. Not realizing the ball was fair, Florida catcher Emily Wilkie hesitated to make the play. Third baseman Charla Echols, who missed Saturday's game due to a left forearm injury, attempted to throw Packer out but the delivery came late.

The Tigers realized this was their opportunity to gain the advantage. 

Garcia laid down a groundball to the waiting glove of Echols, who made sure she’d make the play this time. With a smooth delivery to first base, the game remained scoreless. 

Senior Cheyenne Lindsey started off the top of the fifth with the first double hit in the entire game. However, Penta used her rise ball to get Wilkie out swinging. Not being intimidated by Penta, sophomore Katie Kistler hit a single down the line allowing Lindsey to score the first run of the game.

Penta closed the top of the fifth with a strikeout against freshman Kendra Falby, who visibly looked shocked by the call made by umpire Ed Clark. Head coach Walton reacted negatively to the decision. He even got into a verbal altercation with an Auburn fan that climbed on the side of the dugout, which caused Auburn's head coach Mickey Dean to come over to see what was going on and calmed everyone down. 

Entering the top of the sixth, redshirt junior Skylar Wallace finally cracked Penta's code and singled after knocking a single to right field. Frustration was seen on Tim Waltons face when Wallace hesitated to take second base when the Tigers have yet to retrieve the ball. Regardless, Adams singled, allowing fifth-year Hannah Wallace to advance to second. 

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Freshman Reagan Walsh stepped up to the plate and delivered for the Gators, advancing Adams to third and Wallace gave Florida a 2-0 lead. Although the points earned were late in the game, their offense slowly improved as the game went on. 

Junior Sarah Longely, who pinch ran for Walsh, quickly stole second putting the Gators back in the scoring position. Penta began to feel the pressure as she allowed Lindsey to walk. Bases loaded for the first time in the game. 

Penta performed a wild pitch, and senior catcher Aspyn Godwin could not catch the ball in time. All the players advanced by one base, and Adam scored the Gator's final point, pushing the score to 3-0. 

Hightower threw her first strike in the bottom of the sixth, prompting Auburn head coach Mickey Dean to immediately come out and have a few words with Clark. This was not the first time that either head coach had words shared with the umpire. The call was not changed, and Peralta popped out to shortstop Wallace. 

As the Gators prepared to enter the top of the seventh, they were trying to avoid the first back-to-back conference series losses since 2019. Wallace would record a double, but failed to round the bases.

The Tigers were down to their final three outs. 

Despite their efforts, Auburn failed to break the Gator's defensive tactics. Florida clinched the series and did not let Auburn put a single score on the board.

The Gators return to Gainesville to host a rivalry matchup against Florida State Wednesday at 6 p.m. They then face Alabama for their next SEC three-series games, the first one occurs on Saturday at 3 p.m.

Contact Vanessa Sanchez at vsanchez@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @_vanessa_sanch.

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