By Brad Goldbach
A chilly evening and cold bats couldn’t hold the number one ranked Florida Gators down Friday night. Coach Tim Walton’s softball team made the most of limited scoring opportunities and Stacey Nelson’s six-hit pitching to open the season with a 3-0 win over the Baylor Bears at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.
Nelson, a first team All-American who led the Gators to a third place finish at the College World Series last year, struck out eight batters and walked one. Although she wasn’t in midseason form, Nelson showed the same kind of grit and focus that made her one of college softball’s most dominating pitchers last year. She gave up some hits, but whenever the Bears got runners in scoring position, Nelson was at her toughest and mowed them down.
“I wish I could say it was jitters,” said Nelson after the game. “I think I was just missing my spots. I wasn’t really in game mode yet. I wasn’t jittery but I needed to settle down into my zone.
“I don’t know if you guys know my history, but one walk in a season opener is pretty good. I mean I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I still have a long way to go, but I’m not worried about it.”
The shutout was the 39th in Nelson’s Florida career. Asked if she knew how many shutouts she has thrown, Nelson responded, “No. But I need more.”
The Gators didn’t hit the ball well but they made the most of their scoring opportunities. Florida managed only four hits to go with five walks. Right fielder Kelsey Bruder had two of Florida’s hits, one of them a towering home run over the right field wall in the bottom of the fourth.
“A home run is always kind of a momentum gain for the team,” said Bruder. “I thought it might help out a little bit. Home runs definitely always feel good. I thought it was gone when it hit the bat, but yeah it felt good.”
Two passed balls gave the Gators their first two runs. Francesca Enea gave the Gators the only run they needed when she came home on a passed ball in the second inning. In the third, Enea was at the plate when ball four of an intentional walk skipped all the way to the backstop allowing Kristina Hilberth to score.
Hilberth, who is Florida’s catcher, understands what Baylor catcher Jordan Vannatta was going through but she also knows that you have to score any way you can in fast pitch softball.
“We’ll take them [the two runs],” said Hilberth. “Poor catcher … I can feel that. So we’ll take it any way we can score a run. This year our thing is kind of just getting on base any way we can. If it means an intentional walk because we’ve got a great hitter up and scoring on that, we’ll take it. We’re trying to maybe be a little bit scrappier, too. If we can take a run any way we can, we’ll take it.”
Aggressive base running got the Gators in position to score those two runs. Walton wants the Gators to keep the pressure on opponents, manufacturing runs when they have to.
“When you get the first run, it’s a lot easier to win ballgames and it’s a lot easier to hit when you have a one run lead,” Walton said. “We’ll take it any way it comes. I don’t care how many wins we get by wild pitch or error. It doesn’t matter. The whole goal of our team is to put pressure on the other team.”
With warmer weather ahead for the Saturday and Sunday encounters with Baylor, the Gators are hoping the offense heats up and gets a few more hits.
“Hopefully we’ll get a few more hits the next couple of games,” Hilberth said. “We took some good swings. We need to be a little bit more selective up there and get good pitches when its our count: 2-0, 1-0, 3-0.”
Even though the season opener was a bit short on offense, Walton was pleased that the Gators found ways to win the game.
“Any time you can go away from a ballgame and win when Francesca, Kim (Waleszonia) and Ali (Gardner) don’t get any hits or really don’t make major contributing factors for a game, then you go, ‘okay we’ll be alright,’” Walton said. “I think that tells you how good we’re going to be throughout the season.”
With game one behind the Gators, Hilberth is hoping the energy from the season opener will carry over throughout the weekend and beyond.
“Game one we had a lot of energy so I’m hoping to carry that through game two, three … all the way to 65 or however many we’re going to play this year,” Hilberth said. “But the excitement of game one is always there, so hopefully we can build on this win.”