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What to watch for when Arizona softball visits Washington for top-10 series

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Photo by Ryan Kelapire

No. 8 Arizona (14-3) will look to rebound from a rocky Florida road trip when they head to Seattle for a four-game series against No. 6 Washington (20-2).

These teams have not matched up since 2019 when Washington swept Arizona in Tucson but lost to the Wildcats at the Women’s College World Series.

Here is the series schedule along with some things to watch for.

  • Friday: 6 p.m. PT/ESPNU
  • Saturday: 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. PT/Pac-12 Network
  • Sunday: 12 p.m. PT/Pac-12 Network

Igniting the offense

Was the Florida State series a fluke or a sign of things to come for this Arizona offense? The Wildcats only scored three runs in three games. They didn’t hit for average (.227); nor did they hit for power (one homer). They also struck out way too much (8.7 Ks/game) and struggled to come up with timely hits.

Not what you expect from one of the best lineups in the country, but it was their first series against quality pitching and a humbling one, to be sure. This week the Wildcats talked about having a better two-strike approach and not trying to do too much at the plate knowing that they have quality hitters throughout the lineup.

“Our approach at the plate against good pitching cannot be taking long cuts to try to hit the ball out of the ballpark because that’s not going to happen,” head coach Mike Candrea said. “You have to have a good two-strike approach. You’ve got to put the ball in play. ... If the home run comes, it comes, but you’re going to have to get people on base. You’re going to have to execute the short game, moving runners, and sometimes you’re going to score run on a ground ball instead of a base hit. Giving yourself the most opportunities to score is the key.”

The Wildcats will face a Washington pitching staff that has been a mixed bag. On one hand, Gabbie Plain is one of the best pitchers in college softball. On the other hand, the rest of their staff has been mediocre, allowing 38 earned runs in 62 innings. UW’s No. 2 pitcher is sophomore Kelley Lynch, who has a 3.13 ERA in 33 innings.

As a team, UW has a 2.23 ERA, only good for sixth (of nine) in the Pac-12. If the Wildcats can get to Plain, even just a little bit, you have to like their chances in this series.

While Plain’s numbers are daunting—a 0.55 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 76 innings—it’s worth noting that the Huskies have not faced any major-conference teams yet.

“She’s got great command, she spins the ball as well as anyone,” Candrea said. “I think she’s probably as good as Cat Osterman at spinning the ball. Her spin rate is very high, therefore there’s a lot of movement. And the big thing with her is deception. She’s got a good offspeed pitch. So yeah, she’ll be a challenge, but she’s got to throw the ball over that dish and you just got to be prepared to put a good swing on a good pitch.”

Mariah’s Pac-12 debut

Yes, it’s true: Oklahoma transfer Mariah Lopez has never pitched in a Pac-12 series even though she has been a Wildcat for almost two years now.

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird,” she said.

The coronavirus pandemic robbed her of that opportunity last March. The Wildcats were just about to host Oregon State before the season was canceled. It sucked, but it makes this series, and her super senior season, even sweeter.

“We’ve had softball taken away from us so we know what that feels like to not play,” Lopez said. “That was just heartbreaking. We didn’t know what was going to happen so I’m kind of taking that moment again.”

Lopez enters the Washington series on a high note. She was named Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week after hurling a three-hit shutout against Florida State. The hard-throwing right-hander had a slow start to the season—which can partly be attributed to an unorthodox offseason—but found an extra gear after a long sit-down with Candrea.

They talked about the mental side of the game. You know, “controlling the controllables.”

“But then also kind of taking it upon myself to find things that I could stick to within my routine when things started to get a little hectic in the game,” Lopez said. “Obviously, it turned out to be a pretty tight game there so I really used the things that I learned and the things that I worked on to help me throughout that game. The biggest thing I think was just getting my breathing down when things were getting a little chaotic and I think that helped me a lot.”

Lopez’s shutout lowered her ERA to 1.24 on the season. Arizona enters the weekend with the best ERA in the Pac-12 (1.13).

A washingTon of power

The Huskies aren’t typically known for their power but their offense has changed even though they, like Arizona, return several starters from their 2019 Women’s College World Series team.

Washington is second in the Pac-12 (behind ASU) with 33 homers, only 11 fewer than they hit that year. Infielder Baylee Klinger, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week, has been a massive addition. The Texas A&M transfer is hitting .448 with a team-high seven long balls.

It’s not just her, though. UW has six players with at least three homers. And none of them are Sis Bates, which brings us to our next topic...

Superstar shortstops

This series features two of the best shortstops in the world. There is Arizona’s Jessie Harper, who blasted her 80th career homer last week, becoming just the 11th player in NCAA history to reach that mark.

Then there is Washington’s Sis Bates, a fellow fifth-year senior who is hitting .500 in the leadoff spot. She’s even better defensively.

A two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Bates regularly makes the extraordinary look routine. Do yourself a favor and watch her highlight reel:

Harper and Bates are friends and actually used to be teammates on the U.S. Junior National Team.

“She’s so funny,” Bates said. “I love her.”

Impeccable defense

Washington and Arizona lead the Pac-12 in fielding percentage, making a combined 11 errors all season. This will be the kind of series where one miscue or one web gem can be the difference in the game. Which team will stay steady?

A Saturday doubleheader!

In case you missed it, Pac-12 series will be different during this COVID season.

Rather than playing three games in three days, Pac-12 teams will play four games in three days, thanks to the addition of a Saturday doubleheader. The catch is the second game of the doubleheader will be counted as a non-conference game.

The idea is to squeeze in as many games as possible this season in case of any COVID cancellations. And it’s easier to do that against conference opponents since they have the same testing protocol.

College softball teams are used to jam-packed weekends, so the extra game isn’t really that big of a deal. In fact, it could work to Arizona’s advantage in this series since the Wildcats have better pitching depth with Lopez, Alyssa Denham and Hanah Bowen.

And at catcher, the most physically demanding position, they have Dejah Mulipola and Sharlize Palacios, who are both great defenders and putting up impressive numbers at the plate.

“You’re gonna have to play more people, the circle is going to have to be quality depth that you’re going to have to be able to use innings out of all of our pitchers, but yeah, this is really not new to us,” Candrea said. “I mean, back in the day we used to play a doubleheader back to back days, but we just have gotten away from it for a long time so it feels like it’s something new. But at the end of the day it’s a four-game series and you got to take one game at a time and put your best foot forward.”

Rain, rain go away

These teams might be lucky to get four games in. The forecast in Seattle this weekend is... not ideal:

Arizona already had to cancel two highly-anticipated games in Texas because of bad weather, so hopefully they can avoid the same fate in Washington.