Washington and Arizona softball both come into the season series reeling. The Huskies and the Wildcats have similar records with UW coming in at 20-10 overall and an anemic 1-5 in Pac-12 play. UA is even worse at 19-10 and an abysmal 0-6 in conference play—with two no-hitters thrown against it already.
To get some insight into what is going on in Seattle and whether it’s as bad as what is going on in Tucson, we reached out to an expert on UW softball. That expert would be Ed Strong, who currently covers Husky softball (and volleyball!) for our sister site UW Dawg Pound and has previously written for Softball America. How’s that for an expert?
Arizona Desert Swarm: Washington started off fairly well this season with two wins over No. 8 Arkansas and wins over No. 18 Tennessee, No. 20 LSU, and No. 7 Oklahoma State, but things started to go off the rails against quality opponents beginning with the loss to No. 15 Clemson on Feb. 20. The Huskies are now 20-10 overall and 1-5 in Pac-12 play. What happened?
Ed: It’s debatable, but you can make a pretty good case that despite being swept, UW actually played better last weekend than they had since Clearwater when they got those wins vs UT, LSU, and OKST. UW scored runs against both pitchers they saw from UCLA (Megan Faraimo and Holly Azevedo) and had chances to score more. The Huskies had a very good chance to at least win one of those games and could have won the series altogether if things break differently.
Arizona Desert Swarm: Junior pitcher Brooke Nelson has the lowest ERA on the staff. She has improved from 6.62 in 24.1IP last season to 1.73 in an identical 24.1IP so far this season. Is that an artifact of pitching against the less-threatening teams on the schedule, meaningless data produced by a small sample size, or is she a viable threat for the Huskies?
Ed: Competition level is definitely part of it, but I really would like to see Nelson start getting more innings. Only two of her outings for a combined 1.2 innings are against definite tourney teams (OKST & LSU). But she’s been getting a lot more swing-and-miss, especially up in the zone. Like all of UW’s pitchers after Plain, she’s had control problems, but since the first few weeks of the year Nelson has been clearly at least second-best on the staff at preventing baserunners (maybe even ahead of Plain, as explained later).
She also should be getting more at-bats! After posting a total of two career RBI in her first ~30 plate appearances from 2020 through February of this year, she has 10 RBI and her first two career homers in 20 PAs since.
Arizona Desert Swarm: On the other hand, Gabbie Plain has already lost four games in 18 appearances this season. That’s as many as she lost in 44 appearances last season. Her ERA sits at 1.99 and she has allowed hitters to hit .218 (up from .174 last season). What has happened to Plain?
Ed: In the three full seasons of her career at UW (18-19, 21), control has never been an issue that lasted more than a couple of games at a time before getting ironed out. All three of those seasons she posted a BB/7 rate well under 2.0.
It rose above 2.2 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, but that had a pretty obvious cause: just before the college season started, she had been training with the Australian National Team for the Olympics. International rules don’t restrict “crow-hopping”, and having gotten accustomed to different rules, she was called for a ton of illegal pitches in the first few weeks. That was the only time she’s ever had illegal pitch issues, and it clearly bothered her mentally.
But neither international play nor illegal pitches are an issue this year, yet Plain’s walk rate has soared to a career-worst 2.49. Over her last seven outings, it’s above four, which includes an extremely strange 3-inning, 6-walk game in the finale at Cal. There’s no obvious explanation; she’s just had a tougher time hitting her spots.
Arizona Desert Swarm: Baylee Klingler is top five in the conference in BA, HR, and SLG%. Who else needs to step up to turn things around?
Ed: Klingler’s been spectacular and UW’s touted freshmen have hit well for the most part, but a handful of role player returnees just haven’t hit the way they had previously. The strangest one is SilentRain Espinoza, who hit over .310 each of her first three seasons and made two All-Region teams. She has been relegated to near the back of the bench for not hitting - her only hit this year was a bunt single that wasn’t even intentional, just a well-placed sac that she beat out. Jadelyn Allchin’s incredible defense in center has kept her in the lineup at least semi-regularly, but she had just two hits all year until a clutch homer in the one game UW won at Cal. Kelley Lynch, one of the very few hitters that didn’t start the season hot, has gotten a bit better as the season has gone but hasn’t yet lived up to cleanup hitter potential.
Despite being in the top three of many offensive categories for the whole season, I’d also mention Sami Reynolds. She started scorching-hot to help UW get those big wins in the first two weeks (she had more extra-base hits than outs through seven games, which includes four of UW’s five quality wins). But her bat went basically silent for a couple of weeks, and just when it seemed like she was getting her stroke back, she was hit in the head by a pitch in the Pac-12 opener at Cal. She’s been in concussion protocol since then, although it seems fairly likely she’ll be back this series.
Arizona Desert Swarm: What’s your prediction for the series?
Ed: The Huskies should win this series easily. The losing streaks are comparable at first but UW has been vastly more competitive. Arizona’s path to a win is to A) capitalize on free bases from UW pitching, and B) do the reverse against the Huskies, who draw a ton of walks but certainly go through spells of not being able to drive runners in. UW taking two of three feels slightly more likely than a Husky sweep, but either feels far more likely than Arizona taking the series