The Merriam-Webster definition for heartbreak is an accurate way to describe what Missouri softball was struck with Friday afternoon.
“Crushing grief, anguish, or distress.”
After trailing Florida for much of a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal game, the Tigers had a win in their grasp in the top of the seventh, only to see it slide through their fingers. Missouri fell just short against the fourth-ranked Gators, with Florida advancing to the tournament title game with a 7-6 walk-off win.
For the first time in four meetings between the two teams this season, it was Florida who carried the lead for much of the game. Missouri jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first after a couple of quick singles off Gators starter Elizabeth Hightower, eventually getting an RBI groundout to drive in the run.
The Tigers wouldn’t hold that lead. Missouri led heading into the fifth inning of each of the three games of its series against the Gators two weeks ago. That wasn’t the case in this one.
Florida tied the game in the second and took the lead on a Kendyl Lindaman two-run homer in the third. It would extend the lead to 5-1 behind Katie Chronister until late in the game.
She was the only Florida pitcher who did not allow at least one run in the earlier meetings and seemed to have the Tigers’ number again. Chronister cruised through her first 2⅔ innings before giving up a solo homer to Kendyll Bailey to cut the lead to 5-2 in the sixth.
But in the top of the seventh, the Tigers gave themselves hope. And in the bottom of the seventh — as was the case with many teams this year against the Gators — it was hope that killed them.
Chronister got two quick outs to start the inning. She had Casidy Chaumont down to her final strike before giving up a double over the head of the centerfielder. She then had Kimberly Wert down to her final strike and walked her. That brought the tying run to the plate, and Cayla Kessinger kept the line moving with a single that brought in Chaumont, keeping hope alive.
Pitcher Natalie Lugo came on for Florida, as it desperately tried to get the final out. For the third time in the inning, Missouri was down to its final strike, this time with Emma Raabe at bat. She waited for a pitch she liked and turned it over the fence, completing the rally and giving the Tigers the lead, only to have the team’s dream of reaching the SEC title game crushed a half-inning later.
Florida found the offense it needed off Emma Nichols. She issued two free passes — a walk and a hit batter — and both moved into scoring position on a groundout. A flyout brought home the tying run from third as Chaumont’s throw to the plate was just off-line. The winning run came on an error by newly crowned SEC Freshman of the Year Jenna Laird, who was unable to field a grounder cleanly enough to get the runner in a close play at first.
It was Florida’s seventh walk-off win this season and 12th comeback victory. Three of those comebacks have come against Missouri.
The Tigers will need to have a short memory and put the loss behind them. NCAA regionals loom next, and Missouri has a good chance to be one of the host sites.
The NCAA Softball Championships selection show will air Sunday at 8 p.m. on ESPN2.