WCWS preview: Can Florida's pitching slow down home run onslaught?
The SEC set a record for home runs in a season this year with the 13 teams (Vanderbilt does not field a team) combining for 941 homers. The long ball was the focus of the 2022 season. Mississippi State’s Mia Davidson set the all-time SEC career home run record with 92.
In a year where the long ball grabbed the headlines — Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo became the sport’s all-time HR queen and now has 117 — it’s a Florida team that finished last in the SEC in homers that is the conference’s lone representative at the Women’s College World Series, which gets underway on Thursday in Oklahoma City.
Six of the 8 teams in the WCWS averaged more than 1 home run per game.
And now it’s the Gators’ pitching that must keep the ball in the yard if they hope to advance in the 8-team double elimination tournament for the national championship.
Florida (48-17) opens with Oregon State (39-20) at 7 p.m.
Home-run hitting WCWS field
The Gators are 1 of only 2 teams (Texas) in the WCWS that did not average at least 1 home run per game for the season. All the others were belting them out of the park with regularity.
Oregon State hit 59 home runs, averaging exactly 1 home run per game. That ranked tied for 48th in the country. That’ll give some kind of indication as to just how many home runs were hit this season.
The other two teams in Florida’s side of the bracket, Oklahoma State and Arizona were a little bit more prolifc. Arizona ranked 10th in the country, belting 95 homers, an average of 1.61 per game. Oklahoma State ranked 42nd nationally with 66 home runs, or 1.12 per contest.
Stay in your bracket
It’s important that Florida remain on that side of the bracket because the other side has home run leader and No. 1 nationally-ranked Oklahoma on the other side as well as a Northwestern team that ranked 22nd in homers with 76 (1.36 per game) for the season.
The Sooners (54-2) hit 138 home runs this season, averaging 2.42 per game. It doesn’t hurt to have the NCAA all-time leading home run hitter on your team. Alo smashed the all-time record and stands at 117 career home runs heading into the WCWS, including 29 this season. Only Wichita State sophomore Addison Barnard hit more (33) in 2022.
The way it’s set up, there’s one way in which the Gators could flip to the other side of the bracket. That would be if they defeat Oregon State on Thursday and then lose their next game. Otherwise, Florida pitching can concentrate on the teams on its side of the bracket.
Gators’ pitching is up to the task
Gators’ pitching has been solid all year, allowing only 37 home runs in 432 2/3 innings. Only Alabama, with All-American Montana Fouts, yielded fewer (25) among SEC teams.
Florida handled its first big test, shutting down Virginia Tech in the Super Regional. to Virginia Tech ranked 32nd in the nation with 66 homers (1.18 average per game). The Hokies hit 3 home runs in a Game 1 win, but managed just 2 runs total in the final 2 games as Florida rallied to win the series. The Gators won 12-0 in the deciding game to advance to their 11th WCWS.
So, they’re pitching well right now with freshman Lexi Delbry (15-3, 2.20) possessing the hot hand. She started those final 2 games of the Super Regional as the Gators rallied for back-to-back victories to advance.
Delbry has appeared in 32 games, with 23 starts. She has allowed just 10 home runs in 108 innings and has held opponents to a .165 batting average. That’s tops on the Gators’ pitching staff.
Senior Elizabeth Hightower leads the staff in appearances (34) and starts (29). Hightower (17-8, 2.44 ERA) has kept the home runs to a minimum as well, yielding 15 over a team-high 163 2/3 innings, although in her last start she did give up 2 of the 3 that Virgina Tech clubbed in the Super Regional opener.
It’s not just the starters that are keeping the softball in the park. In fact, 4 Florida relievers have put a lid on opposing hitters. The quartet has combined to throw 161 innings while giving up only 12 home runs.
Rylee Trlicek, with a team-best 1.75 ERA, has tossed 40 innings without allowing a single home run this season.
Natalie Lugo (11-5, 1.98 ERA, 4 saves) has been the workhorse out of the ‘pen, making 28 appearances, including 10 starts. Over 77 2/3 innings of work this season, Lugo has given up just 7 homers.
Keeping the ball in the park against some of the best home-run hitting teams in the country will be key for the Gators in their quest for a 3rd national title. As a group, it’s proven up to the task. Delbry must continue her hot streak while Hightower has to return to form in order for the Gators to slow down the homerun onslaught.
Florida cover photo of Natalie Lugo via Twitter @GatorsSB.