Stacey Nelson was walking the pitcher’s version of the tightrope Friday afternoon against a pesky California team that wasn’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball but still getting runners in scoring position. From the fourth inning on, Nelson seemed perpetually in trouble, always one pitch away from disaster. But, as the Golden Bears found out, it’s one thing to get runners in scoring position against the Florida ace. It’s another thing altogether to bring them home.
In leading the Gators to a 4-2 win over Cal in game one of the best-of-three Gainesville Super Regional of the NCAA Softball Tournament, Nelson pitched her way out of jams in each of the last four innings, stranding nine runners as she brought Florida within one win of the first College World Series in school history. The Gators (66-3) will face Cal (43-26) in game two Saturday (12 noon, Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, ESPN-TV). Game three, if necessary will be played 30 minutes after game two.
Friday’s game was all about Nelson, who needed every bit of the mental toughness and composure she could muster to battle her way through four pressure-packed innings. In the first three innings, Nelson was dominating as she gave up just one hit while striking out six. Starting with the fourth inning, however, Cal was always one good swing away from either tying the game or going ahead.
It wasn’t that the Golden Bears were teeing off on Nelson. Most of their hits could be categorized as either soft line drives that somehow found their way to the outfield or leg-it-out tappers to the infield but they bunched enough of them together to push across a run in the fifth and another in the sixth to cut what seemed to be a commanding 4-0 Florida lead in half.
Still, when the Bears needed a big hit to turn a scoring threat into a real rally, they couldn’t come through in the clutch against Nelson.
“The reason why she’s such a great pitcher is because she can pitch out of those tough innings,” said Florida left fielder Francesca Enea, who went 2-for-2 and drove in two runs.
“Stacey pitches better when the game is on the line and there is a runner on second,” said Ali Gardiner, who had two hits and a run batted in. “She’s just that confident pitcher and it gives us enough confidence to play behind her and we love it.”
Florida took a 1-0 lead in the third inning when Aja Paculba singled with one out and stole second. One out later, Francesca Enea lined a single deep into center field that brought Paculba home with the game’s first run.
Cal finally started to break through against Nelson in the fourth when a walk and a single to right by Gina Leomiti put runners on first and second with none out. Nelson got out of trouble by retiring the next three hitters. She got Bernice Masianai to hit into a force play and Katie Vickers to hit a hard one-bouncer to Corrie Brooks at third. Brooks held the runner and got the throw across the infield for out two. Out three was a called third strike screwball that caught the corner and handcuffed Sanoe Kekahuna.
Florida got only one hit in its half of the fourth, but a Cal error, three walks and a hit batter did plenty of damage as the Gators broke through for three runs. All nine Gators went to the plate, starting with Mary Ratliff who led off with a walk. One out later Kristina Hilberth’s chopper to short was bobbled and then Brooks coaxed a five-pitch walk off Cal starter Marissa Drewrey to load the bases.
When Kim Waleszonia tapped back to the pitcher to force Ratliff at home, the Bears looked like they might be able to get out of the inning without further damage but Paculba walked to bring home Hilberth and Ali Gardiner followed with an opposite field line drive single to left to bring home Brooks. Drewrey tried to come in high with her first pitch to Enea but she caught the Gator left fielder on the shoulder, driving home Waleszonia.
Drewrey (29-18) is not an overpowering pitcher so she has to hit her spots with her pitches. When she can’t keep the ball in the strike zone she has her problems.
“I thought she had an off day today,” said Cal coach Diane Ninemire. “She wasn’t really sharp today. She was falling behind in the count. For her to be successful she has to stay ahead in the count and find all her zones.”
Cal turned up the pressure in the fifth and the sixth, getting its first two runners on to start each inning, but Nelson was able to limit the damage to a single run each time.
In the fifth, Vernae Sevilla beat out an infield hit to start things off. Savannah Hensley, who came on to pinch-run, moved to second on a soft single to left field by Julie Meyer and came home one out later on a single up the middle by Valerie Arioto that sent Meyer to third when Waleszonia threw late to the plate trying to nail Hensley. Nelson got pinch-hitter Lauren Bauer to hit a soft line drive to Gardiner at first and after she walked Leomiti to load the bases, she struck out Masaniai on four pitches to end the inning.
Vickers started the sixth with an infield hit and Kekuhana reached on an error by Brooks at third. Sevilla’s hard one-hopper to the right side of the infield was scooped up by Gardiner who threw to third to force Vickers for out one but Meyer loaded up the bases with an infield hit. Nelson got out two on a three-pitch called strikeout of Shannon Houston but Arioto singled to right center to drive home Kekuhana.
Once again, Nelson was flirting with disaster when she ran the count full to Erika Racklin but Nelson painted the outside corner with a screwball and Racklin swung and missed by a foot to end the threat.
“Three innings in a row they had first and second with no outs,” said Nelson, who gave up only one earned run while improving her record to 44-3. “They were making really good adjustments at the plate and they were finding ways to get on base. I’m going to have to come out and make some adjustments tomorrow.”
In the seventh, Nelson gave up an excuse me one out single to Masianai but she got Vickers to bounce into a short to second force and Kekuhana lined to Megan Bush at shortstop to end the game.
It was a great escape for Nelson and the Gators, but Walton knew it wasn’t Florida’s best day at the plate either. The Gators left 10 runners on and squandered three scoring opportunities. They had runners on second and third with two out in the first but couldn’t deliver. They had a runner on third with two out in the second and again couldn’t get the key hit.
In the sixth, Brooks reached on an error and took second on a wild pitch by Arioto, who relieved Drewrey in the fifth. Waleszonia beat out a bunt to send Brooks to third and then stole second on the first pitch to Paculba, but Arioto got Paculba to pop up to shortstop and caught Gardiner looking at a strike three. After Enea walked on four pitches, Arioto got a strikeout to on a change-up to end the inning after Tiffany DeFelice had fouled off ten straight pitches.
Walton said the Gators have to do a better job Saturday of hitting when there are runners on base.
“We’re going to have to string better at bats together,” said Walton. “We can’t leave ten runners on base. The positive side is that we had 10 runners on base so we can’t leave runners on. We have to do a better job of having the killer instinct and finding it.”
GAME NOTES: With one more win, the Gators can tie the all-time NCAA record for wins in a season (67) … The game drew a packed house crowd of 1,223 even though it was on a Friday afternoon. Saturday’s game should be standing room only … Cal outhit the Gators 9-6 … Enea’s two runs batted in raised her total to 59 for the season … Gardiner now has 56 RBI … Nelson has struck out 328 batters in 300.2 innings … Nelson will pitch game two. Cal coach Diane Ninemire said she still hasn’t decided on a starting pitcher although it’s expected that she will go with Drewrey.