The Florida softball team put a disappointing regular season in the rear-view mirror by winning the Southeastern Conference tournament with a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over regular-season champion Alabama on Saturday night in front of a record 2,233 fans at Davis Diamond, which opened late last season.
The 10th-ranked Gators (44-15), who won the regular-season and tournament titles last season, prevented fourth-ranked Alabama (52-7) from doing the same this year with a two-out rally in the sixth inning started by a pair of unlikely candidates who came through as pinch hitters.
Freshman slap-hitter Cheyenne Lindsey, batting .184, bounced the first pitch over the third baseman’s head and used her speed to make it a double, her first extra-base hit of the season. Jordan Mathews, batting .196 overall and just .091 with two outs, worked a full-count walk to bring up Florida’s best hitter.
Amanda Lorenz drove them both home by ripping a 3-2 pitch off the plate down the left-field line for a double as the ball hit the white paint.
“It was just a matter that they got their best hitter up, and she just came through,” Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. “She just threaded the needle.”
All-America pitcher Kelly Barnhill (30-11) made the lead hold up, leaving three runners stranded in the last two innings, two of them in scoring position. Throwing for the third straight day, the senior right-hander allowed only two hits but walked a season-high six as she gutted out 140 pitches. Barnhill, who was only a second-team All-SEC pick this season, showed emotion after she got the final out.
“As a team, no one expected us to do well in this tournament,” Barnhill said in a postgame interview on ESPN.
It was Florida’s fifth SEC tournament title, tying Alabama and LSU for most.
The Crimson Tide had its leadoff batter reach for the first time in the fourth inning when KB Sipes walked on a full-count pitch. Hemphill got Alabama’s first hit, a single to left field, also on a full-count pitch. Kaylee Tow hit into a fielder’s choice, leaving runners on the corners. Merris Schroeder’s grounder was hit slow enough that shortstop Sophia Reynoso had no chance to retire the runner at home, though she tried. That almost led to more runs as Skylar Wallace’s single loaded the bases, but Barnhill retired the next two batters via a strikeout and tapper back to the mound.
“We just didn’t do enough offensively,” Murphy said. “The strikeout killed us. You just need to put the ball in play in those situations and good things will happen. Merris Shroeder was a good example of that, when she battled her butt off and hit a 14-hopper up the middle.”
Barnhill improved to 6-3 against Alabama, besting Montana Fouts (15-4), who was the SEC freshman year, part of a Alabama’s three-person starting rotation that included junior Sarah Cornell (21-1) who was the league’s pitcher of the year and Saturday night starter Krystal Goodman (10-0). Alabama ended the regular season with a 1.94 ERA, which was second to Florida (1.88).
The Gators were the overwhelming pick to win the league but went 12-12 - including getting swept at home by Alabama with Barnhill losing two of the games - to finish in a four-way tie for sixth place with Georgia, Arkansas and Missouri. The Gators earned the No. 6 seed for the league tournament via tiebreakers. Florida, which didn’t pitch Barnhill in its first SEC tournament game, scored four in the bottom of the sixth for a 6-5 victory over South Carolina, then grabbed 3-0 victories over both LSU and Auburn to face Alabama, which was picked to finish eight but won the league by four games, which was the same margin Florida won by last year.
Alabama is a lock for a top eight seed for the 64-team NCAA tournament, whose field will be announced Sunday night. Florida may have played itself into a top eight seed.