Defense a consistent component of FSU softball’s success

Pitching and defense have long been the hallmarks of Florida State softball. While Kathryn Sandercock (128 strikeouts) and Danielle Watson (125 strikeouts) have each had dominant innings and outings, the defense behind them has often been the eraser — keeping runners off the base paths and scoreboard, liming ERAs and leading to wins.

The Seminoles (45-5) lead the nation with a .984 fielding percentage and have committed just 24 errors in 50 games. Opponents have more than double the number of errors (56).

“It’s been great,” said Josie Muffley, who has just three errors in 31 starts at shortstop. “Sydney Sherrill has always been making great plays. Devyn (Flaherty) is getting really consistent too at second base. Brooke (Blankenship), she has been playing great. … You never know when the next play will happen and the next amazing top 10 play here at FSU.”

The top-10 plays keep racking up for the Noles, so many that you could start referencing them and will soon realize a few that have slipped the mind. A couple of recent gems from the FSU-Oklahoma State series: Muffley’s snow-cone grab of a ricochet off Sandercock’s glove, left fielder Kaley Mudge’s diving grab as well as her throw home for an out at the plate and Sherrill’s snare of a grounder and dive to tag out the runner at third base.

What do wins look like? Plays like these that keep runners off base, get them out or keep them from going home. Sherrill has long been considered an All-American and among the nation’s best defensive players, but that reputation is FSU’s resume. Kalei Harding first showed off her arm as a freshman in 2021, and Mudge isn’t to be challenged either.

The Seminoles are 33-1 when not committing an error going into Wednesday’s final regular-season home game against Florida (7 p.m. on ESPNU). The Gators are fifth nationally with a .981 fielding percentage.

FSU coach Lonni Alameda points to veterans across the diamond as well as some newcomers who have stepped into considerable roles. Among them is catcher Michaela Edenfield, who is well known for leading the team with 16 home runs and 48 RBI but it can’t be overlooked how she has played defensively with just two errors while starting every game.

“Really proud,” Alameda said. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, gosh, Anna (Shelnutt) is gone. Someone new is coming in.’ Taking the responsibility of not only knowing your pitching staff but knowing how to receive. Receiving pitches is a high-level catching position. You’re talking rise balls and change-ups and drop balls. Our pitchers are not easy to catch. … Rookie behind the plate, someone that touches the ball every single pitch. It’s going to be a tough year. She’s exceeded expectations on the maturity side and the mental side.”

When asked if the defense exceeded her expectations, Alameda didn’t hesitate and clearly views it as a strength.

“I think as a coaching staff in the beginning, ‘Hey, we’re going to take our lumps, it’s going to be a tough season.’ And we’ve taken lumps. But the W’s have seemed to pile up for us and it’s been pretty awesome. Now they have confidence in what their abilities are.”

Postseason implications for FSU-UF winner

FSU is third in the NCAA’s RPI and goes into Wednesday’s game looking to sweep Florida (38-13) for the first time since 2006. The Seminoles won a 10-inning game in Gainesville on April 6, part of the team’s 16 wins over RPI top-25 teams (which leads the nation).

It would be wrong to put too much on one game, and this is likely a bigger opportunity for the Gators as the No. 9 team in the NCAA’s RPI. But it is a national broadcast and a rivalry game that will be watched closely.

“I think it would really solidify a top 8 seed,” Alameda said. “I think you want that national (seed). This is huge for Florida. I think they’re bubble talk of a national seed. This is just a big game that everyone gets together for because we want that opportunity to be hosting.”

Good dog

Muffley hit just .199 last season at FSU but has raised her average to .255 this spring and her on-base percentage is up to .369. She credits this to a renewed focus but also help from a friend, Ruger.

“Mental game is a huge part of softball,” Muffley said. “It’s a failure sport. Just sticking to my process. Coming here, late at night in the cages, hitting by myself. Even bringing my dog with me so he can chase down balls for me. He’s great. Sometimes he’s a little too aggressive. He’ll take off even before I hit the ball. I adopted him in October from Bainbridge, Ga. He’s kind of just my best friend. We go out running or we just come out and watch a baseball game. He’s on the poster (with the softball team). That’s my dog. That’s Ruger.”