Arizona softball has six games left in the regular season. After being swept in its fourth straight Pac-12 series and on a 13-game losing streak in conference play, it’s now or never if the Wildcats hope to make their 36th straight NCAA postseason tournament. They have now fallen to No. 44 in the RPI and losses to No. 71 Oregon State and No. 27 California aren’t going to help.
The Wildcats went to Oregon last weekend at No. 39 in the RPI. That was actually one spot higher than the week before. They had risen in the RPI despite getting swept at home by No. 2 UCLA.
The fact that there are no more teams like that on the schedule is both positive and negative. Arizona has a better chance of beating the teams on the schedule than any team it’s played in weeks. On the other hand, if the Wildcats can’t get things going in the right direction, it’s likely to end any hopes of being selected to the tournament this season.
It will also mean playing in the play-in game in the inaugural Pac-12 softball tournament. Even a win would just mean playing UCLA in the first round.
Arizona had a chance to gain ground on ASU last weekend, possibly moving into seventh place and avoiding that conference tournament scenario. The Sun Devils were at UCLA. They were swept, as expected. Just one win in Eugene would have cut ASU’s lead over Arizona to one game. Arizona needs only to tie ASU in conference play since the Wildcats own the tiebreaker. Instead, Arizona couldn’t put it together against the Ducks.
The best chance came on Sunday. The Wildcats took a 4-0 lead that they held until the fourth inning. The Ducks put three runs on the board against starting pitcher Devyn Netz in that inning, but Netz responded in the fifth with a 1-2-3 inning that kept Arizona ahead 4-3.
Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe opted to remove Netz from the circle and put in Ali Blanchard. Blanchard gave up four runs in 0.1 IP and Netz had to go back into the circle to put the fire out. It was too late, though, and Arizona lost 7-4.
“The last time she went through the three, four and six hitters, she got squared up by each of them and usually that’s a sign to change the pace,” Lowe said. “I know when our three, four hitters get on someone, they’re looking forward to that next at-bat, and to me it was just a change of pace that we needed. I still trust AB with the ball in that situation, and we just have to execute.”
It’s been a pattern for Arizona pitchers to start out slowly, giving up multiple baserunners or runs early in an appearance before settling down. It happens to both starters and relievers.
The pattern was blatant in the four games last week. Netz gave up three runs to Grand Canyon in the first inning before settling in to throw a two-hitter in an 8-3 win on Wednesday.
The pattern continued in Eugene, cropping up in every game. Netz gave up two runs early in the first inning of Friday’s game. Arizona never recovered, losing 8-0 in six innings.
On Saturday, it was more of the same. Blanchard ran into problems early, walking two Ducks in the first. She got out of it without giving up any runs, but things got difficult again in the third. She gave up two singles to once again give the Ducks two baserunners.
This time, it was Netz who was brought in to try to put a stop to it. She couldn’t do it. She allowed both inherited runners to score, then she gave up two more runs of her own. This time, Blanchard had to come back in to put a stop to it.
When Blanchard gave up two more runs in the sixth, it was Aissa Silva’s turn to experience the slow start. She got into a full count against Tehya Bird, her first batter. Bird won the battle with a solo shot. It was the Ducks’ second straight home run after Blanchard gave up a two-run homer to her last batter.
Then, came Sunday, which was a much more difficult pill to swallow because the Wildcats had the lead when the pitching change was made. The slow start cost them a critical game. How do Arizona’s pitchers get over that tendency?
“I think just knowing what you want to do and going in and executing, and not really worrying about what the other team is doing,” Lowe said. “Devyn did a great job of coming back from the inning where she gave up three runs, and we knew we wanted her to get through so many hitters. She was the best matchup. And AB was the best matchup and she had been the best matchup for those hitters. So just believing in that process and trusting her stuff.”
In addition to the pitchers trusting their stuff, Lowe knows that a lot of it is going to come down to Arizona’s offense if the Wildcats are going to make that 36th appearance in the postseason.
“I think just being able to close the door—and close the door, but also take things into our own hands,” Lowe said. “Everybody has the power with their bat, with their glove to change this game. And regardless of how many runs we give up, we can score just as many, and they know that. And I think that’s where their confidence comes from...they can beat anyone in the country. They know that, but we have to execute.”
- Junior shortstop Sophia Carroll has started most of the Wildcats’ games for the past two seasons. She continued playing with the team even after her twin sister Aris decided to leave the game following their freshman season. Sophia may be following in the footsteps of Aris. She did not travel with the team when they went to Stanford two weeks ago. She played in the home series against UCLA but was once again absent at Oregon. She has now been removed from the Arizona roster.
“Soph is done for the season for personal reasons,” Lowe said. “And we are supporting her but focusing on the team moving forward this weekend for the rest of the year.”
- Uncertainty has been difficult for the young Wildcats to deal with. Physical injuries happen to all teams, but Arizona has been unable to project who was going to be on the field on any given day for reasons that were unseen and unpredictable. With the decision regarding Carroll now made, it helps the 17 players still on the roster.
“I think the part that hurts the most is uncertainty and not having answers completely,” Lowe said. “And I think when you are so focused on things that you can’t control, it’ll drive you crazy. It was less injury and more not knowing what was happening every weekend. I think today we have clarity in a lot of ways about who’s available and what team’s going moving forward that they needed. They needed to be able to have a little bit of closure and just know what we were doing.”
- One piece of uncertainty that is still hovering over their heads is knowing when Carlie Scupin will be back in the lineup. Last weekend, Scupin wore her uniform in the dugout for the first time since her injury on Mar. 15. It gives her teammates confidence just to see her wearing the same clothes they are.
“It means a lot to us,” said junior third baseman Blaise Biringer. “I feel like we all see the how bad she wants to be on the field and how bad she wants to hit and be at first base, and as her best friend, I’m so happy for it. I’m rooting for her to just be ready and to get on the field...We’re just ready for her to be back.”
When Scupin does get back on the field with her team, it will be at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. Arizona will play its final two regular season series at home before hosting the inaugural Pac-12 softball tournament.