What is your role? That’s a question that players all over the softball diamond have to answer, but it’s especially true for the five pitchers on the Arizona staff. With only 21 innings of playing time to go around on most weekends, finding and fulfilling that role is critical if a pitcher wants time in the circle.
So far, most of them have done just that. Junior pitcher Devyn Netz certainly knows her role: do everything. Netz was originally brought to Arizona as “just an athlete” according to Wildcats head coach Caitlin Lowe. Her considerable talents have finally been able to blossom. The reasons for that are twofold.
“A lot of it is being healthy, but a lot of it is maturing, too, and learning how to pitch to hitters and learning what swing paths look like,” said pitching coach Taryne Mowatt-McKinney. “’Okay, their swing path looks like this, now I can throw the same pitch but maybe just a little bit lower to get them to swing over it.’”
Last year, Netz wore a walking boot when she wasn’t pitching. It limited both how she was used in games and how she could prepare between games. Development was a challenge.
“It’s tough because you’re limited on what you’re able to do physically,” Mowatt-McKinney said. “So, you really kind of talk about the game a lot. Talk about spins and what you can do that doesn’t put a lot of toll on your body. And so, a lot of that last year was talking about that and how important certain pitches are in certain situations. And now that she’s healthy, she can now apply that, and then you get confidence in what you’re able to do.”
Netz is applying the lessons she learned from all of the staff on both sides of the ball. She’s hitting .350 with 21 hits in 60 at-bats this season. She has struck out just nine times in 80 plate appearances. Her nine home runs are tied with the injured Carlie Scupin for first on the team and tied with two other players for third in the Pac-12.
She doesn’t get a day off, either. Since the injury to Scupin, Netz has taken over at first base when she is not pitching. Against Utah, she started at first in the second and third games of the series but moved to the circle in relief several times.
Arizona’s two freshmen may not be hitting or playing first base, but both Aissa Silva and Sydney Somerndike have found their places in the pitching rotation. The pair of rookies are in the top 15 in ERA in the Pac-12. Silva is 13th (2.41) and Somerndike is 15th (2.50).
It doesn’t stop there. Both pitchers were known for their ability to strike out their opponents in high school but adapting and finding other ways to get outs is a common process for most new pitchers.
Somerndike has brought that strikeout talent with her. She ranks fifth in the league and 24th in Division I softball in strikeout-to-walk ratio. She strikes out 7.25 batters for every walk she issues.
“She’s kind of pounded the zone and then made good pitches with two strikes,” Mowatt-McKinney said. “She does have movement, an up movement, on her pitches. So, I think a high pitch in the zone is a tempting pitch to swing at as a hitter. And, thankfully, it’s moving when they’re swinging. So, she’s able to set up her rise ball pretty well, and then when teams are starting to look up, she’s able to sneak in a lower strike to freeze them.”
Silva has been the number two pitcher behind Netz, particularly since Pac-12 play started. She started both Saturday games since league competition started on Mar. 10, getting the win against ASU and a no decision against Utah.
While she set strikeout records at her California high school, Silva has not relied on the K in college.
“With her, it’s just getting that game experience at this level,” Mowatt-McKinney said. “She’s a competitor. She doesn’t get fazed by the big moment. She just goes out and competes. And I think she’s finding sometimes it’s easier to just get a jammed pop up or a ground ball rather than getting a ton of strikeouts and throwing a lot of pitches.”
Silva has stepped into that role largely because of her mindset. Both her coaches and her teammates have noticed how she takes the circle without being afraid. She also has some physical skills that are useful when compared to the rest of the staff.
“I think, obviously, seeing things from the other side, as well,” Netz said. “Her being a lefty, it’s a different look. But like her mentality, also, is she’s confident, she’s calm. She just throws the ball hard. And that’s very helpful when you’re into tight situations.”
Arizona’s two transfers have had different paths. Breezy Hardy has carved out a spot for herself as a short relief pitcher who comes out when the team has runners on and needs to get out of a jam. Overall, it’s been a success for the senior pitcher who won national titles at Phoenix College.
Hardy has surrendered just three runs this season in 9.2 innings of work, but two of the three have been since Pac-12 play started. She gave up one run in each of her appearances.
The up and down swings have been even more evident for fellow transfer Ali Blanchard. Early in the season, Blanchard often started on the second day of a series or tournament. Since then, Silva has stepped into that role.
Blanchard got the start on the third day of the series against Utah last weekend, but she ran into problems early on. After walking two and giving up a run in the first inning, she was lifted for Netz after walking the second-inning leadoff on four straight pitches.
Mowatt-McKinney likes the experience of the Ivy League transfer, but she admits that there are things for the coaching staff to work out regarding how to best use Blanchard’s skills.
“With AB, she pitched a lot of innings for Princeton, and she has great spin on her pitches,” Mowatt-McKinney said. “She probably overall has the best spin on her pitches of the staff. So, with her, it’s just figuring out how to kind of fit her in with our other pitchers and kind of give them that look. She has a good rise ball, as well, but she’s also able to work curves on both sides of the plate.”
The staff will be facing a tough lineup beginning Friday when the Wildcats take on Washington. The Huskies have Baylee Klingler, last year’s Pac-12 Player of the Year and triple crown winner. Only two other players had ever won the triple crown in the conference. She tied Arizona’s Allie Skaggs in home runs with 24 while also being first in RBIs, batting average and hits.
The game will be aired on Pac-12 Network, Pac-12 Arizona and Pac-12 Washington beginning at 5 p.m. MST.