Gator Softball Recap: Florida Rides Pitching to Beat Illinois State, Florida A&M

One day into the Bubbly Invitational, and the Florida Gator softball team is still undefeated in 2019.

Coach Tim Walton’s team held both their opponents scoreless on Friday. In Game 1 starter Kelly Barnhill dominated the Illinois State Redbirds for five innings. The Gators took the first game of their doubleheader 7-0 and followed that up with a 4-0 in a nervy match up against Florida A&M.

In the nightcap it was sophomore Natalie Lugo (5-0) who produced a stellar pitching performance. This time, she was asked to relieve starter Elizabeth Hightower for multiple innings.

The Gators’ pitching staff has now held opposing lineups scoreless for 27 consecutive innings. Barnhill and Lugo have combined to throw 22 of those innings. The tandem has racked up 43 strikeouts and only allowed 12 hitters to reach base in that span.

Florida uses early flurry to seize Game 1

Barnhill (7-0) received all the support she would need on Friday in the first and third innings of Game 1.

With two outs and the score already 1-0, third baseman Hannah Sipos would drive in two more home with a double. In the fourth inning, center fielder Alex Voss delivered an RBI single with the bases loaded to increase the lead to four.

The Redbirds’ staff lost their composure after that.

Head coach Melinda Fischer decided to hook freshman starter Mack Leonard (0-2) after she hit shortstop Sophia Reynoso with a pitch to force in another run. Sophomore reliever Morgan Day then did her head coach no favors by forcing in two more runs with another by hit by pitch and a walk.

At that point Barnhill was well into a rhythm. She retired 10 Redbirds via the strikeout and only allowed two hits. The senior now sports a 64:7 strikeout-walk ratio in just 37 innings of work this season.

Walton was also pleased with what he saw from freshman Danni Farley (2 IP, H, 2 K) in relief of Barnhill. Farley was fairly economic (36 pitches) after she allowed three earned runs to San Diego last Saturday.

Lorenz’s three-run homer caps tight Game 2

On the other hand, Friday’s finale was a rather tight affair. The Gators beat the Florida A&M Rattlers by four runs, but the score was 1-0 up until the bottom of the sixth inning.

The inning looked dead and buried until Walton pinch hit Voss for outfielder Jade Caraway. With two outs the senior doubled to right field to keep the inning alive for Reynoso. The shortstop was able to turn over the lineup by hitting a hard ground ball up the middle that she was able to just beat out.

Two pitches later senior Amanda Lorenz rewarded her teammate’s hustle by clubbing a towering three-run home run to right field — her fourth on the season.

The three-run shot spoiled what was, to that point, a commendable effort by starting pitcher Kyaira Brown to keep her team in the contest. She ended the night with a complete-game loss (6 IP, 4 ER, 4 BB, 4 K).

Lorenz put one of her vintage stamps on Friday’s second victory, but it was Lugo that kept Florida in the lead for three innings. Lugo entered the game after starter Elizabeth Hightower allowed a lead off single to third baseman Hera Varmah.

After the game, Walton admitted that he and his staff thought Hightower didn’t have her best stuff against the Rattlers.  

But Lugo proved to be nearly untouchable for the remainder of the game. The California native struck out the side in the fourth and fifth innings. She finished with nine strikeouts against A&M. Even with the score at 1-0, Walton said the plan was always to go to her to close out the seventh.

What it Means

Tim Walton has now guided his team to a 14-0 start. It’s Florida’s best start to a season since they began they 2016 campaign 26-0. Barnhill has already shown that she’s the workhorse for this Gators’ pitching staff. It’s Lugo that is starting to emerge into a sensational second option for Walton in her sophomore season.

Although Hightower’s performance won’t prove productive for her development, she should still get plenty of opportunities in the circle with the Gators’ busy upcoming schedule.

Florida finishes the weekend with two more doubleheaders.

On Saturday they’ll host Illinois State again (11 AM ET) followed by their first look at Syracuse this season (1:30 PM ET). Sunday they’ll play Syracuse (12 PM ET) and then a rematch against Florida A&M (2:30 PM ET).

About Edgar Chavero

Sports media and management student at the University of Florida. Content creator for ESPN 98.1 FM/ 850 AM WRUF.

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