They just got better

In the second inning of another one of those wrecking ball games that you almost pity whoever is today’s sacrificial lamb for the big bad wolf that is the Florida Gators, Tim Walton fired a shot that was heard clear across the college softball world. By sending Kim Waleszonia in to pinch-hit, her first at-bat since she messed up a knee back on February 28, Walton, for all practical purposes, announced that a team that is flirting with true greatness just got better.

It’s not like the Gators missed a beat while their All-American center fielder was rehabbing her knee the last two months — they were 17-2 with Waleszonia in the lineup; 29-1 without her — and that alone tells you how good they are. When you can dominate everybody you play without your career .342 hitter that looks like a hungry cheetah chasing down an antelope the way she runs down fly balls in the alley you’re good. You’re really, really good.

Now bring her back into the equation and suddenly really, really good becomes really, really scary. Now the team that already has everything — “We’re the most balanced team in the country top to bottom of the lineup,” Walton said — adds the best bunter in all of college softball into the two hole to hit behind leadoff hitter Aja Paculba, who’s only hitting .373, and the defense steps up a notch because there isn’t a center fielder in the college game that can cover the gaps and make the throws that Waleszonia snaps off with almost routine ease.

“We have a great lineup from 1-20 on our team but Kim’s special and she makes all of us better,” said Francesca Enea, Florida’s All-American left fielder and owner of an almost flawless swing that has allowed her to hit 16 home runs and drive home 59 in 49 games while playing on an ACL that she tore back in October. Enea hit 17 homers and drove home 64 runs in 74 games last season. Adding Waleszonia into the Florida lineup means one more hitter that can’t be pitched around and that translates into runners on base and mistakes that can be turned into line drives like the one Enea hit over the fence in the first inning of the doubleheader that the Gators won by identical 11-0 scores over Arkansas Saturday at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium.

The book on Enea is make her chase junk. Fast balls tend to leave the ball yard via a high parabola over the scoreboard in left center field. Arkansas pitcher Layne McGuirt played it straight by the book Saturday but Enea’s mechanically perfect swing straightened the nastiness out of a drop ball and sent it like a rope over the center field fence for a 2-0 Florida lead. The ball never traveled more than 12 feet off the ground before it crashed into the trees just to the right of the tailgate parties beyond the outfield fence.

Yeah, you read that right. Tailgate parties under the trees that stretch from the right field line almost dead center field. On a Saturday afternoon when the Gators are in town, Katie Seashole Pressly is such a happening place to be that even Amanda Butler and her Florida women’s basketball staff use the clump of trees in right field to set up a tent and hold a tailgate party that includes the likes of Kayla Lewis, the 5-11 scoring machine from Southwest Dekalb in Decatur, Georgia, one of the nation’s most dynamic recruits.

Lewis and the rest of Saturday’s overflow crowd saw a Florida team prove why the number one ranking in every single softball poll is well deserved. Maybe there is no such thing as a perfect team, but these Gators make the gap between perfect and whatever is next marginally insignificant.

Stacey Nelson and Stephanie Brombacher almost toyed with the Arkansas hitters. They gave up a combined four hits in two games and extended Florida’s scoreless string to 54 consecutive innings. The Gators have pitched eight straight shutouts. Nelson, who was the winning pitcher in both games Saturday, has won 124 games in her Florida career, eighth best total in NCAA history. She has 999 career strikeouts.

In the field the Gators were flawless. Enea in left and Michelle Moultrie in center field ran down the only two fly balls that the Arkansas hitters smacked with any kind of authority, the closest thing to web gems that the Gators needed. The Gators made the routine plays routine, another reason why they are the best team in the nation.

Combine the pitching and fielding with the way the Gators swung the bats Saturday and Arkansas probably wondered what it had done so wrong to deserve a pair of beatdowns this bad. Both games lasted only five innings because of the mercy rule so in only eight offensive innings the Gators banged out 22 hits, 10 in game one, 12 in game two. Ali Gardiner, who hits in front of Enea, homered and drove in seven runs in the two games. Kelsey Bruder, who hits behind Enea, hit a grand slam in game two and finished the day with eight RBI.

“Look at who hits in front of me and who hits behind me and you see why I get good pitches to hit all the time,” said Enea. “I love the way our team hits.”

They hit so well that they broke the school record for home runs in a season Saturday. Last season the Gators set a new school record with 63 home runs in 75 games. They have 65 through 49 games so far this season with one SEC game remaining (Sunday, 1 p.m., with Arkansas) and three non-conference games with Longwood before they get into tournament play. Of those 65 home runs, nine are grand slams, another school record.

“I’m not surprised at what we’re doing,” said Gardiner. “I don’t want this to sound wrong but we’re good because we understand it’s all about us. We really don’t look at opponents. It’s about bringing our A-Game every game and focusing on doing all the things it takes to win.”

Saturday, the things it took to win were good pitching, flawless fielding and a show of muscle-mania at the plate. The real story, however, was the return of Waleszonia, who makes the Gators better in the field and at the plate. In the two months that she hasn’t been able to physically contribute, Waleszonia has been Florida’s constant encourager, a non-stop bundle of positive energy that has kept everybody on the team loose and thinking possibilities.

On her first at-bat since February, Waleszonia probably missed a home run by a quarter-inch. In another week when she’s used to seeing live pitching in game situations again, she’ll hit pitches like that riser Kim Jones threw her on the sweet spot a quarter-inch further down on her bat and there won’t be a ball yard that can hold it. It was a lazy fly to left Saturday, but there was nothing lazy about the single she drilled through the left side of the infield to drive home two runs in the bottom of the third. That was vintage Waleszonia. The ball was on the outside edge of the plate so she extended her arms and went the other way.

Waleszonia will probably DH a few games before Walton feels comfortable with her playing center field once again. When Waleszonia is in the lineup, the defense tightens up and Walton has that extra dimension offensively, a game-altering player who can push opposing pitchers and defenses to the breaking point. You could say that she completes the Gators.

“We’re the best team in the country,” Walton said. “We’ve got a team that can get it done. There is a lot of softball still to play but there is no question we’ve got a team that can be as good as it wants to be.”

They got better Saturday when Kim Waleszonia stepped to the plate in the second inning. The usual dugout chatter was sprinkled with tears that flowed ever so freely.

“It was like we all had gotten punched in the stomach when she got hurt,” Enea said. “She means so much to us that all of us cried that day. We were crying again today because having her back means we’re just that much better. I love our team … we’re good no matter who’s playing, but with Kim, we’re even better.”

Previous articleSEC tennis: No upset this time for Gators
Next articleFlorida’s Taylor second in triple jump
Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.