Softball gets ready to face Virginia Tech

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Gators are in search of “the Hit.”

Not just any base-knock with two outs and nobody on base.

They need to find a way to get the big hit that will drive in runs, something they didn’t do in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the La.-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns in the opening game of the Women’s College World Series.

The Florida softball team will face Virginia Tech in what they hope will be the first of two elimination games on Saturday at the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

The Gators and Hokies (49-17) will square off at noon EDT on ESPNHD. Should the Gators win, they will face the loser of Friday’s game between Arizona State and UCLA at 7 p.m. EDT on ESPNHD.

Florida coach Tim Walton said that while he hates to lose, he’d rather lose the first game of the WCWS if forced to lose a game.

“If you lose (Friday), you don’t get a day off,” Walton said. “I’ve found that to be better. Don’t get me wrong – winning is a lot better than losing. But, if you’re going to lose, I’d rather lose the first game and then play, as opposed to winning the first game and losing the second game because you play consecutive days. It’s definitely an advantage that way other than the fact that we haven’t won a game at the College World Series yet. I don’t like to lose. I don’t lose at anything.”

UF practiced Friday in preparation of what it hopes will be a four-game winning streak to reach the WCWS Championship Series.

“I’m not a cliché person, it sounds like a cliché approach, but the only way we’re going to get through this tournament is we’ve got to win the next game,” Walton said. “Game one, that’s most important.”

Walton said that he wouldn’t hold anything back against the Hokies.

“We’ll put all of our eggs into that game, no matter what it takes,” Walton said. “If it takes all 19 of our players, we’ll play all 19 players. If it means all my speed comes off the bench in the first inning, then all of my speed is gonna come off of the bench in the first inning. You’ve gotta win that first game to be able to have an opportunity to prepare for the second one.”

Despite losing to La.-Lafayette after holding a 2-0 lead, Walton was pleased with the performance and attitude of his team.

“I don’t think we’re tight,” Walton said. “I don’t think we were tight yesterday. I think we got tight when it was 2-2 and their pitcher did a good job. We didn’t play tight yesterday. The plays that Megan (Bush) made at short and Corrie (Brooks) made at third, they made some good plays, some bang-bang plays on some tough balls. Stacey (Nelson) made great pitches and Kristina (Hilberth) did a great job behind the plate. Ali (Gardiner) was picking the ball at first base.”

While the fundamentals were sound, Florida never got what it needed most. The hit.

“I thought we played well, we just didn’t get the hit,” Walton said. “I think that’s what it’s going to come down to and I said it coming in here. You gotta get the hit, for sure.”

Right fielder Mary Ratliff, the lone senior for the Gators, struck out twice against the Ragin’ Cajuns and went hitless in three at bats. She credited Ashley Brignac against the Gators on Thursday, but said Florida has learned from the loss.

“We just have to do a better job with two strikes, no matter where (the pitch) is,” Ratliff said. “We know that anything close, you have to be doing a good job with. You have to be at least fighting it off. We just weren’t doing that enough, now we know that. You definitely have to fight. You’ll get rung up here. That’s part of the game. We’re fine with that, we just have to be better at fighting pitches off.”

Virginia Tech starting pitcher Angela Tincher was named 2008 USA Softball Player of the Year and is the highest-ranked active player on the NCAA Division I Softball career strikeouts list. She led the nation in strikeouts (651), ERA (0.62), and strikeouts per seven innings (14), and was recognized for the third straight year as ACC Pitcher of the Year.

Tincher pitched a no-hitter, striking out 10 batters in a 1-0 exhibition win over the United States Olympic softball team on March 26, ending its 185-game winning streak.

Ratliff said that Tincher’s accolades are impressive, but the Gators won’t change their approach at the plate.

“She’s definitely one of the best in the country,” Ratliff said. “She was Player of the Year, so we definitely have our work cut out for us. But, when it comes down to it, she still has to throw strikes and we still have to keep her in the zone. We did everything we could today to be prepared and we’ll have a good game plan tomorrow.”

The Gator coaches reviewed game film from the La.-Lafayette game, but the players instead were free to relax after the game.

“We didn’t look at film actually,” Ratliff said. “In this kind of tournament setup, you have to have short-term memory. That game is over and done with, we’re not going to dwell on it. We got beat by a good team.”

Strikeouts with runners in scoring position plagued the Gators, prompting a slight change in strategy for the Virginia Tech game.

“We just didn’t make enough adjustments at the plate yesterday,” Ratliff said. “Going into tomorrow’s game with a pitcher that’s probably even more dominant, (we know) we’re going to strike out some, and that’s alright. We know that. She’s going to get strikeouts. It’s going to be about the second, third, maybe fourth time through the lineup, making an adjustment and finding a way to get it done.”

Walton explained the strategy to avoid similar letdowns with runners in scoring position.

“We’re looking to hit strikes,” Walton said. “Some of the times you take an approach where you’re trying to establish a gameplan to take away a person’s best pitch and take that best pitch. We’re trying to put ourselves into position to hit our pitch, as opposed to trying to take her best pitch. We’re trying to hit our pitch.”

At this point in the season, the Gators have played 71 games, compiling a 67-4 record. Making any drastic changes because of the high stakes of the WCWS would be foolish in the mind of the Florida coach because the basic principles of the sport are consistent.

“I don’t think anything changes in the game of softball,” Walton said. “When you turn a lineup over and you give a team an opportunity in the seventh inning to have their 2-3-4 or 1-2-3, I’d put my chances on that team. Whoever has the top of their lineup coming up in the seventh inning in a tie ballgame has the best chance to win. Walks, hit by pitch, blown double play opportunities, kicked ground balls – those kinds of things – if you give a team extra outs, they are going to get you in the fourth time through your lineup for sure.”

The heart of the lineup for the Gators – Gardiner, Francesca Enea and Ratliff – accounted for two of the team’s six hits against La.-Lafayette, but failed to deliver an RBI despite several opportunities. Walton said that he wasn’t disappointed with the overall performance of the hitters, just the lack of clutch hitting.

“Aja (Paculba) got a hit, Ali (Gardiner) got a hit, Francesca (Enea) got a hit, (Tiffany) DeFelice had a hit, (Corrie) Brooks had a hit and Hilberth had a hit,” Walton said. “We had six hits. The kids who have been hitting over the last twenty games, those are my five hottest hitter – with the exception of (leadoff hitter) Kim Waleszonia – those are my hottest hitters. I thought they did hit.

“Francesca and Mary both struck out in the first inning with an opportunity to get RBIs. That was huge. We had an opportunity later on where we didn’t get a hit. I still feel good with my best hitters.

“Obviously, Kim didn’t get on base. She needs to get on base for us to score runs.

“You’ve gotta get it done. That’s how it works. In this situation, you’ve just got to get it done. You’ve got to find a way. Baseloaded, first and second with one out and your (number) four and five (batters) coming up, you’ve got to get it done.”

Brooks was the only Florida starter to not strike out against Brignac. She said that facing Virginia Tech will not be much different than the Ragin’ Cajuns’ pitcher.

“(Brignac and Tincher) are very similar,” Brooks said. “We just have to do better with the pitcher, making our adjustments earlier in the game. We didn’t do that yesterday at all. I think that we just need to not take as many strikes early in the count and capitalize on the mistakes she throws.”

Brooks explained her success against La.-Lafayette, in which she hit an RBI double to plate the first run of the 2008 WCWS.

“It was awesome,” Brooks said. “First RBI of the World Series off of a good pitcher. It was pretty awesome to get ahead. It always helps to get that first run on the board. It feels like you give the defense and the pitcher a little more room to breathe.

“I tried to lay off of the rise ball. That was one thing we looked at in the scouting reports is that she had a good rise ball. I tried to pick up the spin out of her hand. Seeing the up-spin, I tried to lay off of that.

“You’ve got to tell yourself ‘try to lay off of the bad pitches. Swing at a strike if you see it early in the count because if you get down in the count, she’s going to throw her game and you’re going to have to swing at her pitches.’

The fences at the stadium are only 190 feet from home plate, ten feet closer than at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium in Gainesville. A 16 MPH wind was blowing towards center field, making for prime conditions for the Gators’ power hitters to hit home runs. Ratliff said that UF wasn’t trying to hit home runs early in the game.

“Our goal every time is to hit it hard, to square one up,” Ratliff said. “It just didn’t work out yesterday. A lot of times you’d rather have a hard ground ball than a pop up to the outfield. We just want to square up and hit the ball hard, not necessarily outfield or infield, just good solid contact.”

As the game wore on and the Gators’ batted in a tie game after the fifth inning, Walton said the strategy began to switch towards a power approach, but not because of the national television audience and crowd of 6,240 fans.

“I think everybody was trying to hit it out,” Walton said. “I don’t think it had anything to do with the atmosphere. When it was 2-2, I think we were trying to win the game (with a walk-off home run) as opposed to trying to do what we always do. I think everybody was doing that. I don’t think that us playing at the College World Series had anything to do with that. I think it was the outcome and the momentum swing.”

Two-time defending champion Arizona advanced through the visitor’s bracket to win the WCWS last year, but Walton isn’t pointing to that as a source of motivation for his team.

“Arizona has a lot different of a strategy and they have a lot different of an approach to the game than we have right now,” Walton said. “To us, it’s going to be, if you give us that first win and we get an opportunity to win that first game then I think the momentum is going to start to take its course. Then we’re at the highest level winning games.

“We’ve won all the way to this point. We’ve won 27 straight SEC games, we’ve won 37 straight games. We know how to win, but when you get to this level, it’s going to be ‘can you win on the big stage?’ That, to me is the most important thing, to get that first win going.”

In order to get momentum going, Florida will need to stay optimistic.

Nelson will again be the starting pitcher. Her cheerful disposition is never in doubt. Ratliff said the rest of the team is in the right frame of mind to be successful.

“We’re not defeated at all,” Ratliff said. “This is a double-elimination tournament. We still have a chance. Right now, we’re just refocusing on Virginia Tech. A lot of people we’re watching the games yesterday because that’s what this time of year is all about.

“We’re at the World Series. You’ve kinda got to take it all in and make sure you get the experience as well, although we’re definitely focused for tomorrow. We’re ready to win. We definitely want to win a game here, win another game here and keep going.”

With a pair of All-America pitchers in the circle, runs will be at a premium. Brooks had a not-so-bold prediction on how many runs it might take to win the game.

“It’s probably going to be one to two runs at the most,” Brooks said. “You know the pitchers aren’t going to give up a lot of hits. As you saw (Thursday, Tincher) gave up two hits and lost the game. It’s going to be very low-scoring.”

After practice concluded, the Gators had a Barbeque lunch at the County Line restaurant, a local favorite near the stadium.

The players then planned to attend the opening of the “Sex and the City” movie, something that Ratliff and several other players were excited about.

“We’re going to see a movie,” Ratliff said. “Coach promised us that we’d go see this movie when we came here. We’ve got a bunch of fans on the team. I’m one of them. I’m a sucker. (The Tim McGraw concert) is a little later tonight. I would definitely be there in a minute, but there’s an early game tomorrow. We’ve got a curfew.”

Brooks said she would much rather go to see Tim McGraw in concert, as she is not a fan of the HBO television show the movie is based on. She is happy to be in Oklahoma City for the WCWS though.

“It’s been amazing,” Brooks said. “I’ve been watching it on tv since I was 12 or so. It’s always been a dream for me to come here and play. Finally I’m here, now I know what it feels like. It felt different watching it on tv and being out there.”