The Arizona Wildcats are in pursuit of their second straight Pac-12 title, but one important ingredient to a repeat has been missing so far — the ability to win on the road.
No. 9 Arizona (27-6, 6-3 Pac-12) has swept Utah and Cal at home this season, but those series bookended a sweep at the hands of No. 1 Washington in Seattle.
Thus, the Wildcats are fourth in the conference behind UCLA, Washington, and ASU.
Arizona is back on the road this weekend for a three-game series at No. 5 Oregon which could very well make or break the Wildcats’ conference championship aspirations.
Especially if they continue their trend of sweeping one opponent before getting swept by the next.
“I think you have to be highly successful at home and play extremely well on the road,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. “That’s the only way you’re going to win a conference title.”
Arizona took two of three from Oregon in Tucson last season, but the Ducks have swept the last two series in Eugene.
Oregon is its usual dominant self this season, sitting at 29-6 overall, 4-2 in the Pac-12, and 9-1 at home.
“Last year coming into it, it was another top-10 matchup that we had to go into,” said UA ace Taylor McQuillin. “So the mentality is still the same. We’ve gotta go in there and win and the only difference is now we’re in Oregon. So they’re in their environment that’s comfortable. Now that we’ve dealt with some of that in Washington, we kind of know what it’s like to play on the road. We’ve had a little bit of experience with this, now we just got to emphasize the finish.”
Arizona senior Ashleigh Hughes was asked what she thinks when she sees Oregon on the schedule, and she relayed one word: hitters.
Oregon returns six starters from its team that reached the College World Series, and once again has one of the top offenses in the country.
The Ducks are 16th in the country in batting average, 8th in home runs per game, and 17th in runs per game.
“They can hit,” Hughes said. “They’ve always been a powerhouse.”
Yet, the Ducks’ pitching is their biggest strength.
Oregon returns all its top pitchers from last season, and has a team-ERA of 1.08 this season, the fifth-best mark in the country. Opponents are hitting a paltry .161 against the Ducks.
Megan Kleist, an All-American who usually starts the first and third games of series, has a 0.91 ERA in 92.2 innings.
Miranda Elish, who threw a perfect game against Portland State earlier this week, has a 0.85 ERA in 82.2 innings.
A crazier stat: Kleist and Elish have struck out 238 batters this year, while only walking 26.
“I think Oregon has always had their really big hitters, but I think from a pitcher’s perspective they have some pretty top notch pitchers as well,” McQuillin said.
“That’s why they’re one of the best teams in the country. So I think they’re a great all-around team. They have the pitching that they need, they have really good hitters, but I think we have that too. So I think it’s going to be a really close matchup.”
Arizona’s offense, which is 32nd in the country in runs per game and first in home runs per game, has been inconsistent in conference play, but Candrea liked his team’s approach against Cal last weekend.
“I think our mindset is a little closer to what you need to have when you face better pitching,” he said. “You need to have a plan and you have to know what you can hit and what you can’t hit.”
McQuillin (18-4, 0.89 ERA) will have a big hand in Arizona’s success this weekend. She will likely appear in all three games, which would be nothing new.
The junior left-hander has pitched in all but one conference game, tossing a career-high 134.1 innings — 83 more than the next UA pitcher (Alyssa Denham).
Candrea has been comfortable with McQuillin’s workload so far. He even talked about the need to “stretch her out a little bit.”
“It’s kind of funny because at the beginning of the year when we have tournaments and we play a double-header Friday, Saturday, Sunday she throws one game per day. And then all of a sudden we get to conference play and you make a big deal out of it,” Candrea said last Friday when I asked about McQuillin’s usage. “But it’s more of a mindset than anything. We just have to make sure she’s getting a little extra conditioning.”
McQuillin and Arizona’s confidence is high right now, as it comes off a sweep of Cal.
Not that it was low before.
Even when the Wildcats were swept by Washington, they believed they had something to feel good about since they twice took the top-ranked Huskies to extra innings.
“We didn’t get the outcomes we wanted, but it’s not like we were blown out,” Hughes said. “We were right there. … If they’re No. 1 and we’re losing on a walk-off, we’re right there.”
But Arizona needs wins in Eugene.
Oregon won four straight Pac-12 titles before the Wildcats dethroned them last season. Now the Ducks, who are vying to make it back to the top themselves, can throw a major wrench in UA’s plans to repeat.
“I think we proved that this conference is tough,” McQuillin said of UA’s hard-fought 2017 Pac-12 title. “We literally won the conference the last game that we played in conference season. It shows how tough it is, and honestly I think that’s how it’s going to be again this year.”
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- Game 1 — Friday | 5 p.m. PT | Pac-12 Networks
- Game 2 — Saturday | 12 p.m. PT | ESPN2
- Game 3 — Sunday | 3 p.m. PT | Pac-12 Networks
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire