OKLAHOMA CITY — When the LSU softball team won two of three games at Florida back in March, Lauren Haeger wasn’t even in the Gators rotation.
Coach Tim Walton said he was still “trying to figure out some things” with his pitching staff, and Haeger gave up six runs in 6.2 innings covering three relief appearances against the Tigers.
But since then, Walton, Haeger and the Gators have figured out a lot of stuff.
Haeger has become the National Player of the Year, and she threw a five-hitter and hit a tie-breaking two-run homer to lead defending national champion Florida to a 4-0 victory against LSU in the Women’s College World Series on Friday night at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
She improved to 30-1 after hitting her 18th home run.
“I think we understand why Lauren Heager is the player of the year,” LSU coach Beth Torina said. “She’s a special player and she had a great day.”
The Gators (57-6) won for the 25th time in their last 27 games and need one victory on Sunday to reach the best-of-three championship series.
“It’s a great feeling to have to be beaten twice,” Walton said, “and it’s a great feeling to be able to get your players some rest tomorrow.”
The Tigers (51-13) will play the winner of the Alabama-Oregon elimination game (1:30 p.m. Saturday) at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
“I can’t think of time this year when we (faced adversity) and didn’t come back 10 times stronger,” said Tigers starter Carley Hoover (18-6), who gave up Haeger’s homer in the fifth inning and a solo homer to Nicole DeWitt an inning later.
Kelsee Selman relieved Hoover, who had four wins and two saves during LSU’s six-game win streak going into Friday, after the second home run.
The Gators got their final run in the seventh when Kirsti Merritt singled, went to second on Taylore Fuller’s bunt single, stole third and continued home on Kellsi Kloss’ throwing error.
Both pitchers faced major challenges right away.
Kelsey Stewart led off the game with a triple to right-center against Hoover. After DeWitt struck out, Hoover was careful with Haeger and walked her on four pitches.
A bunt single by Merritt loaded the bases before Hoover got Fuller to pop to short and struck out Bailey Castro.
Haeger faced a bigger jam in the bottom half. A.J. Andrews led off with a single, Bailey Landry beat out a bunt and Bianka Bell singled to left to load the bases with none out.
“I felt OK,” Haeger said. “I was hitting my spots fine. A couple of balls got through the infield soft and that’s going to happen, but I felt like my stuff was good.”
Walton brought the infield in, and Sahvanna Jaquish hit into a force play at home that was nearly a double play. Then he moved the infield back.
Shortstop Kathlyn Medina visited Haeger in the circle and told her, “get me a ground ball, and I’ll get you out of this.”
Kloss hit a grounder to Medina, who tagged Bell on her way to third and threw to first for a double play.
“Before the ball was hit I knew I was either going to go to second or if the runner was near me I was going to tag her,” Medina said. “It just happened when I got the ball she was right in front of me and I tagged her and threw.”
That turned out to be the Tigers best chance to get to Heager.
“That was a big turning point,” Torina said. “If we capitalize there it puts them in a different mindset and, it makes it a completely different ball game.”
The end of the first started a string of 10 straight retired by Haeger before Kloss singled with two outs in the fourth.
Hoover got out of a second-and-third, two-out jam by striking out Castro to end the third, and the game remained scoreless through four.
Then Haeger the hitter helped out Haeger the pitcher.
“What a magical night she had,” Walton said.
Now LSU faces a win-or-go-home night on Saturday. If they survive that, they’ll need two more wins Sunday to extend their season into the championship series.
It was just two weeks ago that the Tigers were in the same predicament in the Baton Rouge regional. They won three straight elimination games, twice going extra innings to move on.
“I’m still really confident in this team,” Torina said. “We’re still in a good spot to make a good run at this thing. We still have plenty of pitching left. I feel really good about our chances.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.