Aubrey Leach reached out desperately with her bat.
The Tennessee shortstop faced a 2-2 count against UF pitcher Kelly Barnhill, and she fell for a screwball breaking away from home plate.
Leach’s strikeout led off the fifth inning. Even though it occurred with no base runners, Florida coach Tim Walton said it was the most important strikeout of the game.
“That’s one of the best leadoff hitters in the country,” Walton said. “To get her out on that one, that kind of set the stage for the way rest of the lineup was going to go through the rest of the game.”
Barnhill totaled seven strikeouts in Florida’s 3-0 victory over Tennessee in the opening game of the NCAA Gainesville Super Regional. The senior right hander pitched her eighth complete-game shutout of the season and placed her team one win away from the Women’s College World Series.
The Florida starter allowed only three walks and three hits, two of which came off Leach’s bat. She was particularly stingy with runners on base, holding UT to 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position and just 1 for 9 with runners on base.
Barnhill struck out batters to end each of the final three innings, and she allowed just a walk and a hit over that stretch.
“I think as the game went on my pitches were getting better and better,” Barnhill said. “Sometimes the longer you’re out there, you kind of get into a groove and you kind of feel your pitches better.”
Barnhill pitched the majority of the game with a lead. The UF offense scored its first run before even registering an out.
First baseman Amanda Lorenz led off the bottom of the first with a walk. She now has 235 career walks, tying Devon Wallace of Arkansas (2012-15) for the SEC career lead.
Designated player Kendyl Lindaman followed the senior with a double over the head of center fielder Cailin Hannon, scoring Lorenz from first.
Lindaman touched home after back-to-back two-out singles by right fielder Jaimie Hoover and shortstop Sophia Reynoso.
Hoover came up with another clutch hit in the bottom of the fifth. Catcher Jordan Roberts singled to center field before Hoover grooved a 1-0 pitch into the left-center gap. Pinch runner Amanda Beane raced home from first, while Hoover jogged into second for a stand-up double.
The Gators had three extra base hits -- all doubles -- while Tennessee failed to knock any.
The Volunteers’ best scoring opportunity came in the top of the third after left fielder Jenna Holcomb and Leach poked back-to-back singles to start the frame. Barnhill hit first baseman Ashley Morgan in the arm with two outs to load the bases.
However, Haley Bearden popped up to end the inning, and UT never put another runner in scoring position.
“It takes so much pressure off when you jump on the other team in that first inning,” Barnhill said. “It makes pitching easier.”
Follow Mark Stine on Twitter @mstinejr and contact him at [email protected].