Gators look to regroup

June, 2, 2009
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Florida coach Tim Walton, pitcher Stacey Nelson and third baseman Corrie Brooks looked like a group that had just been beaten soundly during the press conference following an 8-0 loss against Washington in the opening game of the championship series.

But the Gators also seemed more puzzled at their own performance than fearful of their fate.

Both Nelson and Walton used the word "uncharacteristic" to describe a performance marked by missteps across the board -- hitting, fielding and pitching -- and which doubled the total number of runs the Gators had lost by in their only three losses of the season entering Monday's game.

Nelson wasn't sharp, although it didn't help her cause that the strike zone tended to favor outside pitches, especially to right-handed batters. That's not to say the Gators were unduly burdened -- the strike zone is always an organic thing -- but Nelson is at her best when she's able to get in on the hands of batters. And it's tougher to get those swings when there's no need for batters to protect inside.

Aside from one oblique reference, Walton didn't make an issue of the zone or use it as an excuse, but it also seemed to get to the Gators at the plate. Two of the team's first three batters struck out looking, and only leadoff hitter Aja Paculba even recorded a swing in the first frame, striking out on a rise ball from Lawrie after taking two strikes. In all, five Gators struck out looking in the game.

One of Florida's greatest offensive strengths is its plate discipline. Walton said earlier this week that his staff didn't even worry about batting averages this season (although with a .324 team average, there's plenty to focus on), looking more at on-base percentage and the sheer volume of run-scoring opportunities the team could produce. But where Washington batters have more walks than strikeouts in the World Series, reversing a season-long trend for them, Florida batters have more than twice as many strikeouts as walks, also a reversal of their norm.

Don't be too patient, but don't be impatient. It's a balancing task worthy of a high-wire act, but it's one that made this Gators team such an offensive juggernaut all season.

"We just have to maintain our discipline, do the things that got us here," Walton said. "We typically will walk as many times as we'll strike out in a game, and we've just got to be able to do a good job of being selective and making adjustments with the game that's being called."

At the same time, Walton suggested, whether as a decoy or not, that he might be looking to change his approach in at least some situations against Lawrie, who has now thrown 16 shutout innings against the Gators this season. Florida has nearly twice as many home runs as sacrifice bunts, but he may be looking for a little of both to avoid falling in another hole Tuesday.

"Overall, just put ourselves in a better position to play -- you know, play a different style of game," Walton said of possible adjustments. "We're going to have to come out and try to play a little small ball tomorrow and get some runners going."

That could mean moving catcher Kristina Hilberth, one of the lineup's better small-ball options, back to the No. 2 spot she occupied at various times this season, including the super regional against California and the World Series opener against Arizona. It could also mean a look for outfielder Michelle Moultrie, second on the team in stolen bases and a regular in the lineup when center fielder Kim Waleszonia was out with an injury. Pinch hitting Monday, Moultrie had the team's only clean hit of the night (the other coming when Washington's Morgan Stuart and Jenn Salling collided on a grounder).

Responding to adversity is the only thing the Gators haven't proven they can do this season, because their own success hasn't offered many opportunities for practice. A walk-off grand slam Sunday was a start, but even then, the Gators had the cushion of another game if they lost. Monday's meltdown aside, they've shown they can do everything else a team has to do on the field to win a championship. In trying to get back to those strengths, they'll prove whether or not they really are a complete team.

"Give Washington credit," Walton said. "I thought they did a great job of capitalizing on our mistakes. We just didn't play very well at all."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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