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Florida, LSU Are Pitcher Perfect In WCWS Openers

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Before it can win a second consecutive national championship, Florida must first make the most of a second chance to assert its SEC supremacy.

The only team in the country to beat Florida's ace this season, Tennessee couldn't do that twice. Now the only team this season to beat the Gators twice in Gainesville awaits in a game against LSU on Friday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) that sends the winner to the Women's College World Series semifinals.

It says something about the peril posed by the defending champs that a team with the only player in college softball to ever amass 60 home runs as a hitter and 60 wins as a pitcher, even on a day when USA Softball Player of the Year Lauren Haeger added to both totals, is often at its best when its batters don't swing -- and when its opponents do.

No. 1 Florida's 7-2 win against No. 8 Tennessee had plenty to do with Haeger, whose first inning home run matched the total she allowed all day against the Lady Vols. But it was also about the Gators again giving opponents ample opportunity to beat themselves.

Put as many of your runners on base as you can. Keep as many of your opponent's runners off base as you can. It isn't complicated. It just isn't easy.

Start with the first run of the game, a two-out solo home run that Haeger drove over the fence in left field in the bottom of the first inning against Tennessee starter Rainey Gaffin.

"My home runs will come with good at-bats and good swings at good pitches," Haeger said. "So I was just kind of going up there looking for a good pitch to hit with two outs. I did a great job with battling a few off and got a good pitch to hit."

That is boilerplate stuff, but Florida lives it.

Haeger initially fell behind in the count against Gaffin, whose movement and ability to keep the ball low contributed to her having allowed just eight home runs in nearly 120 innings entering the game. Florida's star then took two balls, swung and missed at a pitch that tied her up inside and then fouled off two more pitches. It was only on the seventh pitch of the at-bat that she dispatched the ball in the bleachers.

Florida batters forced Gaffin and Erin Gabriel to throw 155 pitches in just six innings. The Gators benefited from two big hits, Haeger's blast and Kayli Kvistad's two-run home run in the third inning, but they also piled up four runs on four walks, four hit by pitches and five singles. They waited for something they could hit, or that would hit them. If it never came, they took the free pass and handed the bat to the next person.

For all their toothy ferocity, gators drown most prey. These Gators are no more merciful.

"As a pitcher, you want to throw the least amount of pitches as you can, especially because you've got to come back the next day and throw again," Haeger said. "I think it's great to work the count. I like to get ahead [as pitcher], and I know that's what most pitchers like to do. So it is a wear on you if you keep getting deep in the count like that."

She, on the other hand, worked her seven innings Thursday on just 81 pitches.

That wasn't the case when the same two teams played three weeks ago in the SEC tournament in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Even with an extra inning of work, and even with 12 strikeouts from the Gators, Gabriel and Gaffin threw almost 30 fewer pitches.

"I think overall we just swung at terrible pitches last time," Walton said. "With the two styles, the contrasting styles, between Rainey and Gabriel, it's hard to really prepare for the way they throw. We just went in with a different approach then we did last time. ...

"We did not see the ball very well at all the last time."

By the narrowest definition of the label, Florida is not a great hitting team, not by its own historical standards or those of the other teams in Oklahoma City -- four of which hit for a significantly higher batting average. But Florida is good at getting on base. The Gators began the day No. 57 in team batting average but No. 11 in on-base percentage.

It can be close, as in a pair of 1-0 tournament wins en route to Oklahoma City, but the Gators eventually hit the ball. And there are almost always runners on base when they do.

And they are rarely coming from behind.

Tennessee's four errors were almost entirely of the hard-luck variety -- a liner that snuck under a glove at second base, a throw that hit a helmet and bounded away. But errors they were, errors that led to four unearned runs from the Gators. From impressive plays like Taylor Schwarz turning the double play or Kirsti Merritt catching a sinking line drive in center field around her shoelaces to potentially troublesome plays that became routine outs, Florida played flawlessly in the field. The Gators do that most games.

Walton said he got chills when informed that Haeger had twice as many hits as the entire Tennessee lineup, but the most emotion he showed all day wasn't as a result of anything she did but instead the inning-ending 3-6-3 double play started and finished by defensive replacement Schwarz in the sixth inning. After losing to Washington in the championship series six years ago, he put a greater emphasis on defense at a time when the strikeout pitcher able to disguise suspect gloves became harder and harder to find.

"We just talked about our overall athleticism has to change," Walton said. "I think the key to that was defensively, the range of our infield and the range of our outfield. I think the game itself is changing. There are so many good athletes playing the game. ... Being athletic, being able to make plays when you're supposed to, I think that's really the key to keeping teams -- you can't give up extra outs at this level."

Haeger spoke after the game about the comfort she felt on the field inside ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, a product of not just winning it all a season ago but making three trips in all to the World Series. She and the Gators know their way around Oklahoma City.

The pitcher they may face Friday night, by contrast, is still getting used to the city she ostensibly calls home for most of the year.

"Just last week I went to Walmart without a GPS," LSU pitcher Carley Hoover admitted of Baton Rouge. "So that was a first for me."

If the new surroundings Thursday bothered her, it didn't show.

By her own admission, Hoover didn't have a particularly sharp fall, her first at LSU after she sat out her true freshman season at Stanford with an injury. Nor was she the best of LSU's array of arms early this season. But against an Auburn team that had already faced her twice, with a coaching staff as good at any at making adjustment. She allowed six hits, didn't walk a batter and needed just 78 pitches to beat a team almost as known for its patience and plate discipline under Clint Myers as Florida under Walton.

Hoover was, if not dominant, at least in firm control of the game almost throughout. Just as she has been in recording four wins and two saves in LSU's six NCAA tournament wins since a regional defeat put the Tigers on the brink of elimination.

"She's not the same pitcher today that she was when we started in February, and she's definitely not the same pitcher that she was in the fall," LSU coach Beth Torina said. "The one thing she's always had, though, is what's inside of her. She'll try and beat you -- if we're walking from the dugout to the fence, she's going to try to win. She's one of the most competitive people I've ever been around. So I think she's always had that, and then she's worked really hard on some things mechanically, doing some things better, making some adjustments.

"The way we call for her now, it's not even close to how we called a game for her early in the season. She's just grown so much. She's able to mix pitches, mix speeds, do things so much better than where we were early."

And for the second time in the first session, the team that made fewer errors, and more plays, won the game. Consistent defense wasn't always LSU's strongest trait this season, but from A.J. Andrews making a catch in center that will be difficult to beat as the catch of the tournament to a double play in the final inning that quashed a no-out rally, LSU didn't give Auburn any extra outs with which to go to work against Hoover.

"I think what was really cool about today was I personally didn't feel like I had 100 percent," Hoover said. "I was missing a lot of middle. But our defense was so strong; we made amazing plays. And our offense rallied."

LSU could give the ball to Allie Walljasper on Friday, just as Florida could, give it to Aleshia Ocasio. More likely, Haeger and Hoover, neither of whom started when the teams played a three-game series earlier this season, will start for the second day in a row.

Each is pitching well enough to win a game on her own.

The one who does win likely won't have to.