On an evening when a long-awaited return might have been anticipated, the Florida Gators softball team stuck to the same script it has the past three games.
Hannah Rogers remained in the same groove that has carried her to a four-game win streak, the top and middle of the lineup contributed timely hitting and defensive play was strong. The Gators defeated Florida International 8-0 in six innings in front of 723 fans at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.
“We’ve been hitting, we’ve been working a lot in practice and today, it really showed,” center fielder Michelle Moultrie said.
Mariah Dawson pitched three innings and took the loss for the Panthers (23-21). Down just 2-0 after giving up a single to Florida first baseman Megan Bush, the freshman was pulled in favor of junior Jenn Gniadek.
The freshman from Chesapeake Va., quickly dug the hole that made the game a comfortable victory for the No. 10 Gators (34-7).
After loading the bases with walks to Florida’s Tiffany DeFelice and Cheyenne Coyle, second baseman Aja Paculba came in to face Gniadek. With a 2-1 count, two outs and Florida in danger of leaving a potentially big inning with just one run, the senior drilled a line drive down the left field line resulting in a bases-clearing double.
“We work on that situation a lot in practice, and by us working on it so much, I kind of stayed relaxed, and just knew that I needed to score at least one run in that situation,” Paculba said.
Florida left the fourth inning with a 6-0 lead and the game in hand.
The lead was nicely maintained by Rogers, who continued her return to dominance that she showed against Arkansas and registered her 20th win of the season.
With nine strikeouts and just one walk on Wednesday night, Rogers now has 32 strikeouts and three walks in her last four games. She has now recorded two-consecutive two-hitters.
“I’ve been feeling really comfortable with my pitches lately. I feel like they’re all on point,” Rogers said.
Although it can be argued that competition has been down over the past four games, Rogers appears to be returning to the form that made her one of the most dominant pitchers in the SEC in March.
Her success on Wednesday can also be heavily credited to a strong performance by the Gators defense.
The play of the night came when FIU’s Brie Rojas, decked out in baggy pants and a No. 24 jersey in an apparent tribute to Manny Ramirez, led off the second inning with a hard shot to right center.
Moultrie darted from her center field position and made an epic diving catch to steal what would have been a double at the very least.
“As soon as I saw it of the bat, I just knew I wanted to catch it, so I was going to do anything I could to [catch it],” Moultrie said.
“Michelle’s awesome,” Paculba said. “I don’t know what we would do without her in center field.”
Moultrie’s contribution did not end in the field. The junior, who is batting .466 on the season, went 1-2 with a walk. She also scored the Gators’ first run of the game and picked up her 19th steal of the season.
“I’ve been coaching softball 13 years, and I think this is my second time to have a player of her importance to the team,” head coach Tim Walton said of Moultrie.
Wednesday’s game ended with a pinch-hit two-run homer off the scoreboard by Samantha Holle to enforce the eight-run mercy rule.
The glaring rumored storyline of Wednesday night was omitted. After Sunday’s game, Walton said that senior pitcher Stephanie Brombacher might have a chance to pitch an inning or so against FIU.
After strong workouts on Tuesday and Wednesday, he said Brombacher was prepared for Wednesday, but he chose to hold her off a little longer.
“She was ready, she wanted it, I think, today,” Walton said. “Today was the first day she actually really wanted to get out there and pitch, so we’re getting close.”
Although Brombacher was wearing the tennis shoes that have come to mean “not today” during her day-to-day stretch, Walton said she may have thrown against the Panthers if the offense had posted more runs early.
“I just don’t want it to be a situation where the pressure was on her,” he said.
The mystery will continue as he hinted that it would not be a surprise for her to pitch this weekend at Auburn.
Florida will play the Tigers next on Friday at 7 p.m. at Jane B. Moore Field. The game begins a three-game SEC road series for the Gators before returning home next Wednesday against UCF.
Florida International will head home for a Saturday doubleheader against Western Kentucky.
Gator Country reporter Bryan Holt can be reached at BryanHolt@GatorCountry.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/BryanHoltGC.