Looking out over the pock-marked infield, coach Cristina Byrne measured the expressions on the faces beneath purple SFSU visors. The white bases of SF State’s softball diamond were already stained reddish-brown by the cleats of the visiting Cal State San Bernardino Coyotes. It was the second inning of the afternoon game March 21, and the Gators had fallen into a 5-0 hole.
Facing an early deficit was nothing new for the 7-21 Gators, and consistently playing from behind has been one of the team’s biggest problems this season, according to Byrne. The game marked the ninth time the squad had trailed by three or more runs before the third inning, and they have yet to come back from a score disparity of that size. Their level of play despite a demoralizing first couple of frames showed how far this team has come since getting beaten by five or more in seven of their first 14 outings.
“A lot of times this year we have let games get away from us before we even have a chance to be in them,” Byrne said. “I tell them in those situations, let’s make this inning or this at-bat count. That’s all you can do. They’re a young team and they’ve really been rising to that challenge.”
One and a half scoreless innings later, first baseman Selina Rodriguez had stretched her lead off at-bat into a drawn-out 3-2 count. On the next pitch she shot the ball over the fence in left-center field.
Rodriguez had entered the game with a .237 batting average, indicating a comparatively slow start to her season. Her early struggles are not uncharacteristic of the team’s veteran hitters. All five of the returners who batted above .250 last year have hit at a lower clip than they finished with last season.
For the rest of the fourth inning the Gators picked apart the Coyotes’ defense, adding three more runs. Suddenly, a Gators team that had been beaten by five runs or more 10 times at that point in the season found themselves in the thick of a 5-4 battle.
“We have great chemistry as a team, and it really shows when we play together,” Fernandez said. “We’re just trying to do as well as we can with what we have.”
Statistically, the 2015 Gators softball team had just recorded an unprecedented string of at-bats. Only once this season have the Gators scored more runs in one inning, and never while they were trailing. In fact, four runs was more than the Gators scored in any single game throughout their first 13 contests of the season.
Two innings later, the Coyotes once again seemed to be hitting off of an invisible tee sticking out of home plate. The visitors tacked on another five runs to make the score 10-4.
Throughout the month of February the Gators posted just 27 runs in 16 games. Their opponents scored 84 times during the same stretch. In March’s 12 games however, the squad’s offensive improvement has brought that disparity down to just a 45-63 run differential. Despite sporadically solid pitching performances, particularly from ace Megan Clark, SF State’s opponents have consistently scored just above five runs a game on average.
Fernandez struck again in the bottom of the fourth. The RBI hit brought up Sara Higa, a freshman who has batted .365 this season and been a huge part of the Gators’ recent offensive surge.
After falling down 1-2 in the count, Higa cracked a ball into deep left and watched her first career home run sail over the head of a retreating Coyotes outfielder and beyond the chain link fence.
“It felt really good,” Higa said. “This team is so determined and I’m glad to be able to contribute. Every chance I get to give it my all, I take advantage of that.”
The Gators have been on the rise in ways that their record has not begun to reflect, and this game was no exception to that trend. Higa’s homer was the last scoring for either team in the contest that ended 10-7.
In the defeat however, the Gators showed as much heart as they have in any game this season, and the rest of the year remains replete with possibilities, according to Byrne.
“We can build off of a weekend like this,” Byrne said. “This is the best ball I’ve seen this team play. I think they’re just starting to realize how great they can actually be.”