The Florida Gators softball team is one of the best teams in the country, and you should expect to see the orange and blue in June’s Women’s College World Series. But it’d be crazy to say they’re a shoe-in considering the recent road block head coach Tim Walton’s bunch has encountered in SEC play.
Florida has lost each of its first three conference series. The Gators sit at 3-6 in the SEC following bouts with Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss, the latter two of which were away series. That’s unheard of for a team accustomed to losing four or five SEC games the entire season.
For a team that lacks a lot on the offensive side — the Gators rank eighth in runs scored and second-to-last in batting average and stolen bases among SEC teams — Florida’s regular season success and postseason chances fall on the shoulders of the program’s best pitcher maybe ever: Kelly Barnhill.
Barnhill is the heart and soul of the 2019 Gators. She’s thrown more than half of all of Florida’s innings this year. She threw all 15 innings of Florida’s 5-2 win over Ole Miss on Friday night. It’s clear that the Marietta, Georgia native is UF’s best option in the circle, no matter how many innings she’s already thrown on any given day.
Barnhill leads the country in strikeouts (197) and ranks second in wins (19). She has a minuscule ERA of 1.48. If you tried comparing her dominance to a current pitcher in Major League Baseball, you couldn’t. Her 70-plus mph fastball is the equivalent of Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman’s 100-plus mph heater. She’s allowing a lower opponent batting average this season than either of the 2018 Cy Young Award winners Blake Snell and Jacob deGrom.
You get the point.
But so far, Barnhill has been touched up in conference play. Her ERA in SEC games is almost double her overall ERA. The only time she didn’t allow a run to a conference opponent was a six-inning, 13-strikeout gem against Tennessee.
It also doesn’t help that Florida’s aforementioned light-hitting offense doesn’t provide much run support. The Gators have scored eight total runs in those six SEC losses. Outside of UF’s two clear power hitters — Amanda Lorenz and Kendyl Lindaman — the rest of the lineup has been uninspiring at the dish.
Much like Florida’s two national championship years in 2014 and 2015, its season will boil down to the success of a star pitcher. First it was Hannah Rogers. Next was Lauren Haeger.
Will 2019 be Barnhill’s year? Florida better hope so.