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What to watch for when Arizona softball hosts Washington in top-10 showdown

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Photo by Ryan Kelapire

Arizona softball hosts the Washington Huskies this weekend in a clash of two top-10 teams.

The Wildcats (40-8, 17-1 Pac-12) are No. 6 in the NFCA Poll. Washington (39-7, 14-4) checks in at No. 3.

Both teams are red-hot. UW has won 17 of its last 18, including eight shutouts. UA has won 23 of its last 24. Arizona’s 21-game winning streak was snapped in Berkeley last weekend.

The Cats and Dawgs will meet Friday (5 p.m.), Saturday (1 p.m.) and Sunday (12 p.m.). All three games will be televised on the Pac-12 Network.

Here are some things to watch for.

Is Arizona actually elite?

The Pac-12 schedule laid out so that Arizona didn’t have to face the conference’s heavy hitters—UW and No. 2 UCLA—until the very end.

So while the Wildcats have won 23 of their last 24, they still have to prove they can win series against elite teams. Arizona is 1-5 against top-10 teams, the lone win coming against the fifth-ranked Florida State Seminoles, who still managed to take two of three in Tucson.

The UW series is also an opportunity for Arizona’s pitching staff to leave no doubt about its elite status. The Wildcats (0.87) have the top ERA in conference play, with Taylor McQuillin (0.67 ERA) and Alyssa Denham (0.69 ERA) leading the Pac-12 in that category.

The caveat, of course, is that they have yet to pitch against Washington and UCLA.

Washington’s dynamic duo

Heading into the season, it was believed Washington had the best 1-2 punch in the Pac-12, and maybe even the country, as it returned right-handers Taran Alvelo and Gabbie Plain from last year’s Women’s College World Series team.

That duo has not disappointed.

The Huskies (1.59) are sixth in the nation in ERA. Alvelo, boasting a 1.72 ERA in 150.1 innings, leads the Pac-12 in strikeouts (226) and wins (20).

Plain, who’s pitched 18 fewer innings than Alvelo, is 17-2 with a 1.27 ERA. Their pitching styles are not similar, and maybe that is why they are such ideal complements.

“Alvelo is more of a power pitcher and you have to really be patient with her when you get good pitches, which are usually early in the count because she tries to get ahead,” said UA coach Mike Candrea. “You got to be able to put the bat on the ball and do the little things.

“Gabbie Plain is just absolutely a spinner. I mean, she spins the ball as well as anyone that I’ve seen a long time. She reminds me a little bit of the spin that Cat Osterman used to have, but she’ll throw it down, throw it offspeed, throw it up. She throws it on all planes, very calm. So she’s a kid that you have to try to find a way to get on.”

The Wildcats only scored four runs in three games against Washington last season. They need to simplify their approach this time around.

“When you’re facing good pitching, you’re not going to get fatties down the middle of plate, so you have to work for everything,” Candrea explained. “So it’s a matter of us hitting the ball where it’s pitched, being able to get a good pitch that you’re looking for, being prepared for it. And then just walking into the batter’s box with confidence that you can get the job done. And it’s going to come down to the little things. I think us being able to lay down a bunt when we need to, being able to move a runner when we need to, maybe getting that sac fly when we need to.”

McQuillin’s workload

Because of Arizona’s pitching depth and propensity to run-rule teams, McQuillin has had a lightened workload this season.

Her 150.1 innings are roughly 90 fewer than she threw last year. McQuillin pitched in all three games of a series three times last season. She has not done that once this year.

But with Washington, No. 2 UCLA and the postseason still looming, it might be time for UA’s ace to ramp things up, though neither Candrea nor McQuillin were willing to reveal if that’s the plan.

“The way you have to play the game from here on out is no secret,” Candrea said. “I mean, you have to get good pitching, you have to have timely hitting and you have to play good defense. And that’s never going to change, so I don’t make anything bigger of it or make it any bigger for any one person. I think Taylor’s in a good place right now, she’s throwing well, and we’re going to need her to throw well, but we’re gonna need everyone to throw well.”

Dazzling defense

Another reason runs will be at a premium this weekend? Washington (.978) and Arizona (.974) lead the Pac-12 in fielding percentage.

If there is one area the Wildcats are better than the Huskies, it’s offensively. Arizona has scored 85 more runs than the Huskies, despite only playing two more games.

Arizona has blasted 90 homers this season; Washington has only left the yard 36 times. UW catcher Morganne Flores is responsible for 17 of them.

The other Husky to know is infielder Sis Bates, who is hitting .405 this season and leads the Pac-12 with a .525 average during Pac-12 play.

“We just have to go out there with a game plan and stick to it or change it up,” McQuillin said. “And really this week is going to be about execution. Execution for our pitchers, execution for our hitters, and strong defense.”

Avoiding a meltdown

As I outlined earlier in the week, the Wildcats are in great shape to host Regionals and Super Regionals this postseason.

The top eight teams host Supers and Arizona currently sits at No. 3 in RPI. Since UW and UCLA are highly ranked, it will take a total meltdown in the final two weeks for the Wildcats to fall out of the top eight.

Win two of three against Washington, and they are probably safe no matter what happens at UCLA next weekend.

“This is a fun time of the year, and every opponent from here on out is gonna be good,” Candrea said. “You have to find a way to beat them. Whether it’s 1-0 or it’s 5-0, it really doesn’t matter.”

Eyes on UCLA

The Pac-12 is essentially a two-horse race right now between UCLA and Arizona, who are both 17-1. They face each other next weekend in Westwood to close out the regular season, a series that will surely determine the conference champion.

This week, the Bruins are on the road at Stanford. A UCLA loss or two could significantly shift the race in Arizona’s favor if the Wildcats handle business against the Huskies.

Senior sendoff

This weekend won’t be the last time Arizona’s six seniors will play at Hillenbrand Stadium, but it is their final regular-season home series.

You can read more about them and why it will be an emotional week here. Below are their season stats.

Hillary Edior, DP/RF/C: 22 games (15 starts), .304/.400/.478, 2 HR, 9 RBI

T Statman, DP: 28 games (24 starts), .333/.437/.567, 4 HR, 11 RBI, 9 BB

Joelle Krist, 1B: 18 games (10 starts), .214/.450/.214, 2 RBI

Rylee Pierce, 1B: 37 games (37 starts), .306/.393/.541, 6 HR, 19 RBI

Taylor McQuillin, LHP: 150.1 IP, 1.21 ERA, 181 K, .167 BAA

Gina Snyder, RHP: 25.1 IP, 2.21 ERA, 27 K, .172 BAA