UF goes from a sixth seed in the SEC to one of the nation’s top softball teams in two weeks

The Gators have endured an up-and-down season, but pitcher Kelly Barnhill and first baseman Amanda Lorenz are helping to keep hopes alive.
Florida's Kelly Barnhill, shown against Syracuse in February, has a 0.25 ERA in 36 innings since the postseason began. [AP Photo/Gary McCullough]
Florida's Kelly Barnhill, shown against Syracuse in February, has a 0.25 ERA in 36 innings since the postseason began. [AP Photo/Gary McCullough]
Published May 19

GAINESVILLE — The headline seems basic and predictable:

The Florida Gators softball team beat Boise State 5-0 in an NCAA region final on Sunday to advance to a Super Region for the seventh consecutive season.

But the familiar result doesn’t come close to explaining the odd route taken.

For instance, two weeks ago the Gators looked like a fairly pedestrian team. They had lost six of their last nine games in the regular season, they were a .500 team in conference play and they were the No. 6 seed heading into the Southeastern Conference tournament.

And yet they swept through the SEC field.

Then they arrived in the region on Friday with a team batting average — a very un-softball sounding .265 — that was ranked 178th in the nation.

And yet they breezed through the region with three consecutive victories.

The roster is lopsided, the star pitcher had the roughest season of her career and defending national champion Florida State casts an enormous shadow that stretches all the way from Tallahassee.

And yet, this morning, the Gators are legitimate World Series contenders.

“I’ve said it myself, this is probably one of the most disappointing years of my career just because I haven’t been able to get our players to play at a high, high level for 50-some games,’’ said UF coach Tim Walton, who has been at Florida for 14 seasons and won two national titles.

“But if you look at it as a snapshot in time, a couple of weeks from now I’ll be proud of these players for overcoming the adversity of the season and playing their absolute best at the end. To me, we’ve done exactly what you’re trained to do: play your best when it matters most.’’

So how have the Gators done it?

Walton says the postseason has given players a chance to leave their pasts behind. No one cares about the wimpy batting averages or the 2-1 losses from March and April.

And having already endured the most demanding schedule in the nation, there is no panic about facing good teams one after another in the postseason.

“We’re playing with this fearlessness since the postseason started,’’ said first baseman Amanda Lorenz. “We have nothing to lose, we’re going all out, taking risks. It makes the game a lot more fun.’’

The greater reason, of course, is Florida has, arguably, the best hitter and pitcher in the nation.

Lorenz is the reigning SEC player of the year and was the No. 2 pick in the National Pro Fastpitch College Draft last month. The No. 1 pick? That was UF pitcher Kelly Barnhill, who was the national player of the year in 2017 and won an Espy as the best female collegiate athlete.

Lorenz had three hits and scored UF’s first run on Sunday, while Barnhill threw six innings of two-hit, shutout ball. Starting with the SEC tournament, Lorenz is hitting .455 with a .538 on-base percentage. Barnhill has six starts, four complete games and a 0.25 ERA with 38 strikeouts in 36 innings.

“Our statistical line for the entire season hasn’t been as good as we’re used to,’’ Walton said. “We’ve been pretty good offensively, really good defensively and really good pitching-wise.

“The thing I like the most is we’ve trained those two, Kelly and Amanda, and have been able to manage them throughout their entire careers to get this point to where we’re going to have them put the team on their backs.’’

This isn’t the recommended formula to reach the World Series. Barnhill has pitched 36 of Florida’s last 40 innings over an 11-day span. And Lorenz and Kendyl Lindaman have provided an outsized portion of the offense. The basic premise is to manufacture a run or two with small ball at the top of the lineup, and then hope Barnhill can make it hold up the rest of the game.

Four of the last six games have been won 3-0 or 2-1.

“Some of our misfortune, some of our poor performances, some of our losses, some of our disappointments, have also helped propel us now,’’ Walton said. “They were already used to the pressure. Kelly is pitching well, we get a lead, let’s roll.

“You could see it in practice last week. We have a bounce in our steps.’’

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.