GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Before the NCAA Tournament began, Florida softball coach Tim Walton challenged Amanda Lorenz.
The Gators offense was coming off a lackluster performance in the SEC Tournament, being held scoreless and to just two hits against eventual tournament champion Ole Miss.
So Walton turned to Lorenz, his sophomore leadoff batter, to provide a much-needed spark as the top-seeded Gators prepared to make a deep postseason run.
“If I had to put one thing on that I think it has to be the top of our lineup has to be a lot more explosive,” Walton said.
“I’m excited for it,” she said. “Pressure is a privilege.”
Lorenz has lived up to that pressure all season, being an offensive catalyst on a Florida team that lives on the success of its pitching staff and the timely hit here or there.
Lorenz must step up again for at least two games this weekend with the Gators (53-7) playing host to No. 16-seed Alabama (45-16) for the best-of-3 Super Regionals. The series winner goes to the Women’s College World Series.
But to Lorenz, there’s no pressure. Even with Florida’s top ranking, she said the Gators played with a target on their back all season, like every game they played could be their last.
“We know what the postseason feeling is like,” Lorenz said. “We’ve had this feeling all year. This is comfortable for us.”
‘A professional hitter’
Walton noticed Lorenz’s talent after seeing her play for the first time as an eighth grader in Moorpark, Calif.
For five years as the leadoff hitter for the OC Batbuster travel ball team, she drove balls into the gap, hit them over the fence and dropped them just in front of outfielders for base hits.
“There’s just a different sound that comes off her bat,” Walton said. “She plays with a high level of passion, energy and intensity, but what drew me to her was the professional side of hitting. She’s a professional hitter.”
Moving Lorenz to leadoff represents a shift in philosophy for Walton from recent years and from the general philosophy of college softball. Most coaches use speedy slap-hitters in the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Traditional leadoff hitters have a knack for getting base hits on ground balls that hop past infielders and then would steal second to get into scoring position.
Most recently, Walton had Kelsey Stewart in that role. She set program records for career hits (357), runs scored (259) and batting average (.391). Lorenz came in last season and spent most of the games batting second behind Stewart.
“We had amazing seniors that last year who were so sure of their roles and did a good job at it,” Lorenz said. “It was fun learning a different role but I’m definitely excited to be back in the leadoff spot because I think I thrive in that spot.”
Thrive might be an understatement.
She leads the Gators with 10 home runs and a .651 slugging percentage but also has consistency and plate discipline to complement that power. Lorenz is second on the team with a .379 batting average, has drawn 52 walks and started the season by safely reaching base a school-record 42 times.
And this following after a freshman season where she was a third-team All-American and the NFCA Freshman of the Year.
“Amanda is a three-hole hitter by the stats,” Walton said, “but she’s got a leadoff mindset.”
That was on full display at last weekend’s NCAA Regional, when she led off Florida’s 9-0 rout of Florida A&M with a home run and opened Sunday’s win-or-go-home game against Oklahoma State with a double that danced along the right-field line. Nicole DeWitt drove her home four pitches later with a home run.
“It’s just crazy how good she is,” DeWitt said. “It just pumps up everyone in the dugout. It pumps me up when she gets hits.”
National championship mentality
To Lorenz, Florida’s Super Regional against Alabama feels like another regular-season SEC series.
When every conference team makes the NCAA Tournament, the conference schedule has a postseason atmosphere.
“Every weekend was like a Super Regional,” she said.
This time, though, if Florida doesn’t win the series, its season is over. The Gators learned that the hard way last season after being swept by Georgia at home with the Women’s College World Series and a chance to win a third consecutive national title cut short.
“I came here because I wanted to win national championships,” Lorenz said. “My goal wasn’t even to get to Oklahoma City. My goal was to win it. And then [last year] was, ‘Whoa, we’re not going?’ ”
If Florida wants to go back to Oklahoma City, it must defeat a hot Alabama team that thrives on its successful pitching staff.
It starts with junior Alexis Osorio, who is 12th in the country with a 1.22 ERA and has thrown 318 strikeouts in 190 innings. And then there’s senior Sidney Littlejohn, who has a 1.28 ERA.
In the two Regional wins against Minnesota, the No. 1-ranked team in the country in the final NFCA poll, Osorio and Littlejohn combined to pitch consecutive shutouts and gave up just 7 hits and 6 walks in the process.
No problem, Lorenz said. After all, the Gators face the top pitching staff in the country every day in practice, a four-headed monster that includes USA Collegiate Softball Player of the Year finalist Kelly Barnhill (22-3, 0.35 ERA) and senior left-handed pitcher Delanie Gourley (20-4, 0.71 ERA).
“If we can learn to hit our pitchers,” Lorenz said, “we can hit other pitchers too.”
And if Lorenz is coming to the plate late in the game, Walton knows he can take a sigh of relief.
“It doesn’t sit the same way when you know you don’t have your most pure hitter in that situation,” Walton said. “I’ll take my chances every time.”