‘We can take a breath’: LSU softball team faces its first unranked weekend opponent in six weeks _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU head coach Beth Torina speaks to players in the dugout as the Lady Tigers play Florida, Saturday, March 26, 2016, at LSU's Tiger Park in Baton Rouge, La.

An Easter weekend series against top-ranked and two-time defending Women’s College World Series champion Florida was a stern gauge of where the LSU softball team stands.

Three losses in less than 24 hours — as the Tigers produced just two runs — showed they have a ways to go to if they’re going to make a return trip to the WCWS.

The Gators finished the sweep with a 6-2 win Saturday after a pair of 3-0 wins Friday, the second coming in nine innings.

“It was a long two days,” said LSU sophomore pitcher Carley Hoover, who lost the first and third games of the series after losing just one of her 11 decisions before Friday.

But the shortcomings had more to do with hitting — particularly with runners on base — than anything else

After LSU stranded 18 runners in Friday’s doubleheader, coach Beth Torina rearranged her batting order.

She moved infielder Bianka Bell, one of the most prolific hitters in the country, from the No. 3 spot to leadoff, which Bailey Landry had returned to just Tuesday against Nicholls State. But Landry had a rough doubleheader Friday, going 1-for-8 and stranding six runners.

Bell’s move led to Sahvanna Jaquish and Kellsi Kloss sliding up one spot each to third and fourth. Sandra Simmons moved from ninth to fifth, and Landry dropped from leadoff to ninth.

“I thought they were trying to pitch around Bianka,” Torina said, “so I put her in a spot where that would be difficult to do.”

Bell was 1-for-5 with two walks in the doubleheader and 0-for-2 with a walk and a hit by pitch Saturday.

The reshaped lineup had little more success against the third of Florida’s 10-win pitchers than the previous lineup had against the first two 10-game winners. Aleshia Ocasio threw a five-hitter in the series opener and relieved Delanie Gourley to get the extra-inning win as well.

On Saturday, Kelly Barnhill saw the Gators’ scoreless streak against the Tigers, which was 27 innings dating to the Women’s College World Series last May, finally end in the fifth on Simmons’ single, a Gators error and Amber Serrett’s fielder’s-choice grounder.

After going 24 consecutive innings without scoring — including the last four in the 2-0 win against Nicholls — LSU scored in consecutive innings as another unearned run came across in the sixth.

But the brief disappearance of goose eggs from the linescore didn’t change the fact that the Tigers had just one run-producing hit the entire series: Simmons’ RBI single in the sixth.

The rare absence of a midweek game this week could be helpful as the Tigers try to regroup before going to Georgia next weekend. That gives hitting coach Howard Dobson and assistant coach Lindsay Leftwich extra time to work with the hitters.

Hoover called the extra time between games “a good detox for us.”

“I think we need it,” Torina said. “We had a quick turnaround here, but we can get away for a day, then we have two days to worry about ourselves and two days to prepare for Georgia.”

The good news is there’s plenty of time for a team that entered the weekend ranked seventh in the country to straighten things out.

When it returns to action Friday, it will have 22 more games in the six weeks leading up to the Southeastern Conference tournament.

The Tigers find themselves in a very different situation than they were in a year ago, when they set school records by winning their first 25 games and ascended to the No. 1 national ranking.

Now they’re 3-6 in the rugged SEC. Last year’s team didn’t absorb its sixth SEC loss until its 19th conference game.

“It was cool to go 25-0 last year, but it’s kind of the opposite this year,” Hoover said. “We’re trying to get better as we go along and be strong at the end.”

This team has opened SEC play against the No. 4, No. 11 and No. 1 teams in the country. Georgia is ranked No. 12.

“It gets easier from here,” Torina said. “It doesn’t get a lot easier, but it does get easier.”

Follow Les East on Twitter, @EastAdvocate.