Tennessee pitcher Erin Gabriel didn’t have a lot time to think about matching up with Florida’s Lauren Haeger, the Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year, in the semifinals of the league tournament Friday.
Gabriel simply didn’t flinch when she learned of her assignment near the end of the first semifinal game between Auburn and Alabama at Tiger Park.
She warmed up earlier than she would have, then went out and out-dueled Haeger to help No. 11 Tennessee to a 2-1 win over No. 2 Florida — knocking out the tournament’s top seed.
With the win, Tennessee advanced to the championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday against Auburn, which defeated Alabama 7-1.
Tennessee backed up Gabriel’s three-hit pitching over six innings with a two-run fourth against Haeger, who was 24-0 with a 1.42 ERA, and Rainey Gaffin, the scheduled starter for the Lady Vols, pitched a perfect seventh for the save.
The original pitching plan for Tennessee co-head coaches Karen and Ralph Weekly was gone with the wind when the Lady Vols stepped off the bus. With a stiff wind blowing in from center field, they went with Gabriel.
“We arrived and saw the conditions, and we really thought it was just a perfect matchup for Erin in the way she throws,” Karen Weekly said. “She really rose to the occasion. It was blowing harder than any of the other days we’ve played here. Erin is a great rise-ball pitcher, and we knew it would be pretty difficult to hit a ball out today.”
Florida (50-6) did hit one out when Taylore Fuller homered in the sixth, but that was one of only three hits the Gators managed.
To show how dominant Gabriel and Gaffin were, SEC player of the year Kelsey Stewart, who was hitting .463 coming into the game, was hitless in four at-bats. Justine McLean, another .400 hitter, was 0-for-2.
“When I came out today, I really just had the goal of keeping everything simple and not making the game bigger than it was,” Gabriel said, who got run-scoring singles from Scarlet McSwain and Tory Lewis in the fourth inning. “I wasn’t really nervous because I tried to keep it simple.”
AUBURN 7, ALABAMA 1: Continuing to feel quite comfortable in Baton Rouge, Auburn extended its stay another day after it topped Alabama.
Auburn, which arrived in town April 30 for a three-game series with LSU and remained for the SEC tournament, advanced to the SEC final for the first time in program history when it scored two runs in each of the first two innings and coasted to the victory.
“I mean, Baton Rouge is a great town,” Auburn coach Clint Myers said. “We’re having a lot of fun. The weather has been outstanding. … We don’t mind staying another day.”
No. 7 Auburn (48-9) got all the runs it needed in the first inning when Alabama pitcher Leslie Jury sandwiched two bases-loaded walks and two hit-batsmen around a single.
In the second, Auburn’s Branndi Melero belted a two-run double that increased the lead to 4-0. That was more than enough for Marcy Harper, who allowed just four hits and one run in going the distance.
Melero, Kasey Cooper and Emily Carasone each had two hits in Auburn’s 10-hit attack against Alabama (42-12).
Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said the walks and hit batters that extended the first inning hurt the Crimson Tide more.
“You lose when you only get four hits, when you don’t have a good start pitching and give away too many freebies,” he said. “That’s what happened. You can’t give a good team hit-by-pitches and walks. You can’t let them continue the inning.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.