It wasn’t about the score as much as it was about the occasion.
TAMPA — Jordan Matthews watched with anticipation as two pitches hit the catcher’s mitt.
A total of 1,782 fans filled the stands and lined the outfield wall at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium on Tuesday night for the first time since the home of Florida Gators softball underwent renovations.
The 2019 home opener featured a ribbon-cutting ceremony with UF Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, a ceremonial first pitch by former-Athletic Director Jeremy Foley and an exhibition game between the Japan National Team and the Gators.
Florida fell to the older, more experienced Japan side 8-0. It wasn’t the result that UF wanted to usher in its new home digs, but pitcher Kelly Barnhill said she valued the experience to play against one of the world’s best teams.
“I think that it was absolutely amazing that we had this opportunity,” Barnhill said. “When you play the best in general, you start to become better and better each time… I think we learned a lot of stuff about ourselves through this game.”
The Japanese team defeated South Florida 10-2 in Tampa on Monday night with 11 players from its roster that placed second at the Women’s Softball World Championship in August. Team Japan also saved its best pitcher, Yamoto Fujita, for Florida, and the home side only mustered two hits, both singles.
Barnhill got the start in the circle for the Gators. The senior and two-time All-American gave up just six hits and two runs in 19 innings of action last weekend in Tampa, but in three innings of work against Japan, Barnhill gave up four hits and a run.
Japan opened the scoring in the top of the second.
A single through the left side by the 28-year-old Fujita started the inning, and she eventually circled the bases to score. The Japan pitcher touched home on an RBI sacrifice fly by left fielder Nadoka Harada to put the first run on the board.
“Nobody knows who Fujita is,” UF coach Tim Walton said. “That’s one of the best players in the entire world with a bat, with a glove, and oh, in the circle too."
Team Japan extended its lead two innings later. Walton took Barnhill out after three innings and handed the ball to freshman Danni Farley to start the fourth.
After a leadoff single by Fujita, Farley was able to retire the next two batters. However, Harada powered an offering over the wall in left field to extend Japan’s lead to 3-0.
A close play at the plate in the top of the fifth gave the visitors a 4-0 advantage, and the Japanese squad pulled away in the seventh.
Sophomore Natalie Lugo entered the circle for UF with one out left in the top of the sixth before giving up four runs in the top of the seventh. An RBI sacrifice fly, an RBI single and a two-RBI double made up the scoring in the final inning.
Florida struggled offensively against the experienced pitching of Japan. Fujita started in the world championship final against Team USA that went into extra innings. She hurled four innings on Tuesday and struck out five batters without relinquishing a hit.
The star of the game for Florida was shortstop Sophia Reynoso, who impressed with her defensive play. The junior turned a double play to end the top of the first by fielding the ball, stepping on second and throwing to first. She also made a diving over-the-shoulder catch on a blooper into shallow right field during the top of the sixth.
Walton said he liked the defensive play from his team, but wanted a better performance overall.
“We’re on the right track, but for me, being a competitor, I wanted to give them a little bit more of a fight than what we showed tonight,” he said. “Defensively there was some good talk, good communication.”
Follow Mark Stine on Twitter @mstinejr and contact him at [email protected].