TAMPA — Jordan Matthews watched with anticipation as two pitches hit the catcher’s mitt.
TAMPA -- The Gators walked into USF Softball Stadium knowing that Saturday’s doubleheader ag…
The bases were loaded with one out in the bottom of the seventh. NC State pitcher Sydney Nester delivered the 2-0 pitch and watched as Matthews lifted it high in the air and deep into right field. Pinch runner Haven Sampson tagged from third base and crossed home plate comfortably.
“We all know Jordan is no stranger to walk-off hits,” senior pitcher Kelly Barnhill said. “It was a really deep fly ball, and it gave us exactly what we needed in that game.”
The walk-off sacrifice fly ended the first game of Florida’s Sunday doubleheader, 2-1, at the USF Softball Complex. The Gators turned around to beat host South Florida 7-1 shortly thereafter and improved to 5-0 to start the season.
Taming the Wolfpack
Florida put its first run on the scoreboard in the opening inning thanks to a Danielle Romanello RBI single up the middle that scored leadoff batter Hannah Adams. But the team couldn’t convert on scoring opportunities from that point.
UF left 10 runners on base. Shortstop Sophia Reynoso left the bases loaded with a fly-out to right field in the bottom of the fifth, and the Gators went 2 for 10 with runners in scoring position for the game and 1 for 7 later against USF.
Stranding runners in scoring position is a small problem that has manifested during the USF Opening Weekend Invitational, as the Gators went 3 for 14 in a 6-0 win against Michigan on Saturday. However, that game was closer than the score indicated, as UF went 1 for 10 with scoring chances before a four-run seventh inning.
Pitcher Natalie Lugo started strong for Florida in the circle on Sunday.
The sophomore struck out six and didn’t give up a run in four innings of action. She allowed a triple in the first and a double in fourth, and UF coach Tim Walton decided to make the change to Barnhill to start the top of the fifth.
“We wanted to see how long we could go with Natalie (Lugo) with the change-ups and keep them off balanced and then go with Kelly and change their bat plane,” Walton said.
Giving up the long ball was an issue for the two-time All American last season, and she left one over the plate for the second NC State batter she faced. However, Barnhill held the Wolfpack hitless for the rest of the game, setting up the walk-off opportunity for her offense in the bottom of the seventh.
Herding the Bulls
USF (1-4) scored in the first inning this time.
Barnhill got the start and gave up doubles to the first two batters she faced. Florida faced its first deficit of the young season.
But UF responded with three home runs, the first a line-drive, solo home run over the left-field fence by Jaimie Hoover in the top of the second. The floodgates opened in the top of the fourth.
Third baseman Hannah Sipos walked after a 14-pitch at-bat, bringing up Adams. The second baseman faced a 1-2 count with two outs and the bases loaded. She pounced on the next pitch and belted it over the tall fence in left field. The grand slam gave Barnhill a comfortable 5-1 lead to work with.
“The key to the second game, to me, is Hannah Sipos’ at-bat,” Walton said. “(She faced an) 0-2 (count), walks and then Hannah Adams hits the home run. So really, really good turn-it-over at-bat.”
Florida added two more insurance runs off the bat of Romanello in the top of the seventh. She blasted her second home run of the weekend, a two-run shot over the wall in left-center.
Barnhill didn’t allow a hit after the first two batters. She struck out 11 Bulls and allowed only five base runners in five innings of work.
Freshman pitcher Elizabeth Hightower finished the evening in the circle. She finished with an impressive no hits, no walks and four strikeouts in just two innings.
“Elizabeth (Hightower) really started slow for us in the fall,” Walton said. “When she came back from Christmas break, she’s had a really nice month for us where she’s been pitching well… So really excited for her to get that going.”
Follow Mark Stine on Twitter @mstinejr and contact him at [email protected].