Stewart's perfect throw saves tying run, advances Florida to Oklahoma City
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Marla Townsend gambled against the strength of the Florida softball team Sunday. At stake? Merely her UAB squad’s season and shot at the Women's College World Series.
Like so many UF opponents before her, Townsend lost.
“It’s something my athletes may not understand,” Townsend said after a second consecutive one-run loss in the best-of-three NCAA Super Regional at Pressly Stadium. “But I promise you, I would do it again.”
And no one would blame her.
Down 1-0 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, the Blazers had the tying run -- Anna Kimbrell, who doubled two batters earlier -- at second base when Lauren Webster grounded a pitch from UF ace Hannah Rogers up the middle for what looked like a sure hit.
Florida freshman second baseman Kelsey Stewart dove to her right to stop the ball and keep it in the infield.
In the third base coach’s box, Townsend was waving her runner home on a play that never left the dirt. In that split second, Townsend determined this was the play -- right then -- that gave her club the best chance to tie the game and get to extra innings.
“We’d had a hard time scoring,” Townsend explained later. “I wanted a play at the plate. They’re going to have to throw, catch and put a tag on versus relying on the [next] hitter coming through when Rogers is doing an outstanding job.”
Gators coach Tim Walton certainly understood. Even admitted having made the same call (good and bad) in the past.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I applaud the effort of trying to get a run in there.”
What Walton and a packed orange-and-blue house ended up applauding was a phenomenal play by his rookie infielder in yet another display of defense that has been a constant throughout this surprising, overachieving season.
Stewart not only knocked the ball down, but as she looked to first base for a possible play there, she heard her teammates screaming, “FOUR!”
As in, the play is at home.
“I would have gone, too,” Stewart said.
From her knees, Stewart propelled her body high enough to fire a throw to catcher Aubrey Munro, who entered the game in the seventh as a defensive substitute.
“I looked and saw the runner coming,” Munro said. “I mean, I was thinking first-and-third situation, then all of a sudden Kelsey is on the ground throwing me the ball.”
Perfectly, in fact.
Kimbrell was out by 10 feet, with Munro popping her ball-in-glove.
Throw. Catch. Tag.
College. World. Series.
“Give them credit,” Townsend said.
On Saturday, it was a two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh, as the Gators played their small ball and pushed two across with only one base hit.
On Sunday, UF struggled at the plate (just four hits, one of them a timely run-scoring double from freshman Taylor Schwarz in the fourth), but leaned on Rogers, who got her 33rd victory, and that deadly defense that ranks third in the nation with a .980 fielding percentage.
It’s a different formula than past Gators teams used to punch their tickets to Oklahoma City, but exactly no one is complaining.
Especially the coach.
“You have to be good at what you’re good at,” Walton said. “We’re really good at pitching and defense. Offensively, we’ve had our struggles all year long, compared to what Gator fans are used to; and maybe what the coach is used to. But at the end of the day, we’re good at pitching and defense and will continue to be.”
At the end of this particular day, Stewart signed off ESPN’s coverage with a post-game interview in front of the team dugout. After it was done, she pulled the headset off, dropped it on the ground, then raced passed her teammates and executed a perfect cart wheel and a back flip in right field.
It was her second-best athletic move of the day.