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Arizona softball hopes to keep the bats going against strong Stanford pitching

arizona-softball-hopes-keep-bats-going-against-strong-stanford-pitching-vawter-canady-kennedy Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona softball has a strong offensive arsenal. The No. 20 Wildcats (24-12, 3-6 Pac-12) have two of the top five batting averages in the Pac-12 in its lineup, including league leader Olivia DiNardo. It has the league leader in both RBIs and walks with Allie Skaggs. Devyn Netz is tied for second with 11 home runs. But there’s something lurking over the horizon at No. 7 Stanford (28-6, 5-4 Pac-12).

The Cardinal have the best pitching staff in the Pac-12 when it comes to ERA. The staff ERA sits at 1.44. Freshman NiJaree Canady has a miniscule 0.14 ERA, leading the conference. She also stands in fourth with 92 strikeouts in just 51.1 innings pitched.

Alana Vawter isn’t far behind her rookie teammate. The senior is third in the Pac-12 with a 1.61 ERA. Her 83 strikeouts have her tied with Arizona ace Netz for sixth in the league. Both Vawter and Netz have pitched almost twice as many innings as Canady with the Stanford leader at 100 IP and the Wildcats’ number one pitcher at 100.1 IP.

Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe isn’t just impressed by the pure numbers, though. She thinks the big challenge is how the Stanford pitchers complement each other.

“They pair well together for one,” Lowe said. “Their ace, Vawter, has a great heavy drop ball. And then their freshman NiJaree has a very, very good up presence. So, they pair very well together. And [Regan] Krause has been throwing well for them and threw a lot this weekend against UCLA. Just tough competitors. And it’s going to be like it always is about making adjustments first and taking what she gives us, because she’s not going to leave a lot of stuff up and elevated that you drive out of the park. It’s going to be hard singles, hard doubles through the infield.”

That’s a clear advantage for the Cardinal. The Arizona pitching staff is ranked eighth in the Pac-12 with a 3.12 ERA. Stanford pitchers have given up a total of 10 home runs compared to 36 surrendered by the Wildcats. Those numbers are first and last in the conference.

When it comes to offense, though, the pendulum swings strongly in Arizona’s favor. The Wildcats are first in the Pac-12 in batting average (.360), on-base percentage (.450), and slugging percentage (.583).

In contrast, the Cardinal are middle-of-the-pack in batting average, ranking fourth with a .307 team average. They are seventh among the nine teams in on-base percentage (.373) and eighth in slugging (.437).

The Wildcats have to figure out how to put their strengths to use while facing off against the Cardinal’s strengths.

“I think understanding that they have good pitching, but we have good hitting, so it’s not like they’re gonna go in and super overpower us,” said freshman outfielder Dakota Kennedy. “Just using all our tools and what we got, and we’ll be able to do it as a team.”

Those tools are plentiful. The Arizona offense has a combination of strong contact hitting, speed and power, with several players exhibiting all of them. One of those players is Kennedy, who hit a grand slam last weekend then followed it up for two bunts for base hits. It’s the second time this year she has hit a grand slam then bunted for a base hit in her next at-bat.

DiNardo, Skaggs, and Jasmine Perezchica are all in the top six in the league in average. DiNardo leads the Pac-12 with a .460 average. Perezchica finally got enough plate appearances to qualify for ranking and sits in fifth with a .422 average. Just behind her in sixth is Skaggs, who is hitting .415.

DiNardo is not the only Wildcat to lead in an offensive category. Skaggs continues to knock runs in. She leads the conference with 54 RBIs despite already having a league-leading 31 walks this season. The RBI total is 16 ahead of second-place Maya Brady of UCLA.

Skaggs is joined in the top five for RBIs by Netz, who is tied for fifth with 33. Netz is tied for second with 11 home runs and Skaggs is tied for fifth with 10.

When they go to Stanford, the Wildcats don’t want to be thinking about home runs, though. They know it could come back to haunt them. Instead, they want to “keep it simple,” in the words of third baseman Blaise Biringer.

“I think not trying to do so much and trying to hit base hits rather trying to be big and try to hit home runs, just because it’s a good team and they have good pitching,” Biringer said.

The Wildcats are still a team in flux, though. While Carlie Scupin’s name is still in the top 10 in several offensive categories, she will continue to be sidelined for a few more weeks with a broken arm suffered on Mar. 15. Scupin underwent surgery on Mar. 21 and was expected to be out for 4-6 weeks.

That has caused a great deal of adjusting the lineup, both offensively and defensively. Freshman Tayler Biehl, who came in as a shortstop, has been called upon to play all over the diamond. She has filled in both in right field and first base. Now, she’s learning yet another position.

Last week, Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe said that if they put the gear on Biehl, she could probably catch. Apparently, it wasn’t just idle talk. At practice on Tuesday afternoon, Biehl was wearing the gear and catching a bullpen session for freshman pitcher Sydney Somerndike.

The need for another catcher was necessitated by fifth-year senior Izzy Pacho being away from the team. Lowe said after last Friday’s game that Pacho was away from the team taking care of personal matters. As of Tuesday, Lowe said Pacho was still “day to day” and they did not know if she would be back for the trip to Stanford that was to get underway on Wednesday.

DiNardo has moved from designated player to catcher in Pacho’s absence, but there was still a need for a backup catcher. Biehl’s athleticism and mindset made her the one who got the call.

If DiNardo is playing catcher, it opens the door for someone else to play DP. Last week, that duty rotated. Netz was in the hitting spot for one game while Ali Ashner got three games at DP.

Without Pacho, it shortens the Arizona bench even more. The Wildcats have been down to 16 players without Scupin and freshman utility Kaiah Altmeyer. Without Pacho, they are reduced to 15, five of whom are pitchers.

Arizona may be facing personnel shortages, but they have proven to be a resilient team throughout the year. They have also shown themselves to be an offensive force even against the top teams on their schedule.

The Wildcats have played eight games against Top 10 teams and 15 games against teams that have been ranked at some point this season. Against Top 10 teams, they have gone 2-6 but have not lost a game by more than two runs. They have been outscored 28-26 in those games. Against all ranked teams, they are 5-10 but have outscored their opponents 74-64 primarily due to two blowout victories over Arizona State.

Stanford presents an opportunity to get closer to .500 against Top 10 teams. The Wildcats have faced several top pitchers this season. They have been successful scoring runs against those top pitchers and top teams. What Arizona has not been as successful at is closing the deal and getting the wins. Will this be the breakthrough series?

No. 20 Arizona Wildcats (24-12, 3-6) @ No. 7 Stanford Cardinal (28-6, 5-4)

When: Game 1 will be held on Thursday, Apr. 6 at 6 p.m. MST. Game 2 starts on Friday, Apr. 7 at 6 p.m. MST. Game 3 is on Saturday, Apr. 8 at 12 p.m. MST.

Where: Boyd & Jill Smith Family Stadium in Stanford, Calif.

Streaming: Stanford Live Stream

Stats: Game 1 Live Stats, Game 2 Live Stats, Game 3 Live Stats

Rankings: Arizona is ranked No. 19 in the Softball America rankings, No. 20 in the NFCA/USA Today poll, and No. 21 in the ESPN/USA Softball poll and the D1 Softball rankings. The Wildcats are No. 38 in the RPI.

Stanford is ranked No. 7 in the NFCA/USA Today poll, the ESPN/USA Softball poll, and the D1 Softball rankings. It is No. 8 in the Softball America rankings. The Cardinal are No. 4 in the RPI.

This site uses the NFCA/USA Today poll as the official poll.

How to follow along: Follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live tweets of softball and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.