Arizona softball finally fell out of all four top 25 rankings, although the Wildcats (25-18, 3-12) are still getting votes in both the NFCA and USA Softball polls. The fact of the matter is that rankings aren’t what they should be concerned about this time of year, anyway. The RPI is queen right now, and the team actually improved in that key metric last week.
Just playing the second-ranked UCLA Bruins helped Arizona. The team went 1-3 last week and extended its Pac-12 losing streak to 10, but because the three losses came to one of the best teams in the country, the Wildcats moved up from No. 40 to No. 39.
Now, Arizona will try to help its postseason cause again. The Wildcats defeated Grand Canyon on Wednesday evening. They were planning to spend the night in the Phoenix area then fly to Eugene, Ore. on Thursday to prepare for this weekend's final Pac-12 road trip against the Ducks (28-11, 8-7).
Arizona will not leave Hillenbrand Stadium again until the NCAA postseason, assuming that the team maintains its RPI and stays within the good graces of the selection committee. This year’s inaugural Pac-12 Tournament will be held in Tucson.
Arizona is trying to improve its seeding in the conference tourney. Right now, the Wildcats sit in eighth place in the league standings. They are two games behind Arizona State for seventh place and need just a tie to move ahead into seventh because they won the season series 2-1. It’s a crucial difference.
The No. 8 and No. 9 seeds must play in a play-in game to start the conference tournament. The winner moves on to play the No. 1 seed, which is almost assuredly going to be UCLA. The No. 7 seed will likely face either Washington or Utah, two teams that Arizona was competitive with.
UA faces No. 17 Oregon on the road this weekend, then returns home to play Oregon State and California. ASU must go on the road to face No. 2 UCLA, return home to host No. 8 Stanford, then finish on the road against the Beavers.
The schedule may favor Arizona, but getting off to a strong start in Eugene would certainly help. How do the Wildcats and the Ducks stack up?
This facet of the game has been the glaring hole for Arizona. A team that averages 4.5 runs per game in Pac-12 play shouldn’t be 3-12. The Wildcats’ 68 runs in conference play place them fourth in the league. The problem is that they have surrendered 88 runs, landing them in eighth in the league.
The concern for the Wildcats is that Oregon’s pitching is decidedly stronger than Arizona’s. Last season, both teams had pitching concerns. This season, Oregon has improved in relation to the rest of the league. While the Ducks are giving up more runs than UCLA or Stanford, they are still third in the league with just 60 runs scored against them.
Overall, the Ducks’ staff has a 2.60 ERA, but that has increased to 3.53 during conference play. The Wildcats have a 3.67 staff ERA that has exploded to 5.57 in Pac-12 play.
Oregon’s best pitcher against league opponents is Morgan Scott, who joined the Ducks from UNC Greensboro in the offseason. The senior has a 3.00 ERA in the Pac-12 and has pitched 42.0 innings against league opponents. She allows an average of one home run per seven innings in those games, which could work in Arizona’s favor.
Stevie Hansen is the Ducks’ No. 2 pitcher as far as innings pitched during Pac-12 competition. She has 35.1 IP with a 4.16 ERA.
For Arizona, Devyn Netz has pitched the most innings by far. She has 47.0 IP. The next closest on the team is Aissa Silva with 24.0 IP. Both have an ERA north of five. Netz sits at 5.66 and Silva at 5.83. The best conference ERA on the staff belongs to Ali Blanchard with a 4.54 in 12.1 IP.
When looking at the entire season, Arizona has hit fairly well. All of the players who have enough plate appearances to qualify for rankings hit at least .291 and seven of the nine hit .317 or better. Shortstop Sophia Carroll, who doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify but has been a regular starter, hits .268.
Since getting into conference play, the Wildcats have had difficulty against some of the top opponents but not all of them. Most notably, Stanford gave Arizona a lot of problems. The Wildcats hit just .179 over that series, going 14 for 78 with two home runs in three games. In comparison, they hit .333 (28 for 84) against UCLA and had four home runs.
Carlie Scupin has not played in a Pac-12 game since the Wildcats started the season at ASU. She planned to take batting practice on Tuesday, but she understandably did not play against GCU on Wednesday. If Scupin is anywhere near to her old self when she returns, the Wildcats will benefit simply by having her in the lineup. Her bat is feared. It helps everyone else get better pitches to hit.
Only four of the Ducks’ hitters who qualify for ranking are hitting above .261. As a team, they have hit .262 in Pac-12 play. That’s not far below the .269 Arizona has hit. The difference has been that Arizona has allowed its opponents to hit .319 while the Ducks have a much more manageable .270 opponents’ batting average.
Home runs tell a similar story. UO has hit 11 in league play and allowed 15. Arizona has hit 15 even without the benefit of Scupin for most of the season, but opponents have hit a whopping 26 against the Wildcats.
Just over 11 percent of the runs that have been scored against Arizona pitchers during Pac-12 competition have been unearned. For Oregon, that number is just under nine percent.
The difference isn’t that Arizona is committing more errors. In fact, Oregon has 12 errors to just five for the Wildcats. The discrepancy likely goes back to pitching. Arizona pitchers have more difficulty overcoming the errors committed by their defense because they are giving up more walks and hits per inning.
The Wildcats’ pitching staff has a WHIP of 1.62. Only Netz (1.55) and Silva (1.46) are below 1.90. Meanwhile, the Ducks’ staff has a 1.38 WHIP. Scott has a respectable 1.12 and only one pitcher has a WHIP higher than 1.52.