An aggressive approach has helped the offense carry the Arizona Wildcats to a No. 8 ranking through 48 games this season.
Now it’s time for the pitchers to show their teeth as well.
Coach Mike Candrea has his Wildcats snarling down the stretch as they close the season with two tough opponents, starting this weekend at No. 10 Washington and closing the season next weekend at home against No. 1 Oregon.
Against a strikeout-prone Huskies lineup, Arizona will look to maintain a hot streak by relying on its pitchers as it bears down toward postseason play.
“Our biggest theme this week has been to pitch ahead,” said Candrea, whose Wildcats are 11-1 in their last 12 games. “We need to get ahead, pitch ahead, to pitch to contact and not worry about strikeouts, not worry about pitching not to get hit. If you get to a 1-2 count, you’ve got the upper hand as a pitcher. It’s a matter of us taking control early on in the at-bat.”
The offense has been downright frothy at the plate, ready to pounce on any mistake at any time.
Arizona remains far-and-away the best offense in the conference, if not the country, dwarfing the competition in batting average, runs and home runs with a lineup that features four of the top hitters in the conference in Chelsea Goodacre, Hallie Wilson, Kellie Fox and Katiyana Mauga. Arizona’s batting average, home runs and scoring lead the nation, and the team .663 slugging percentage would set an NCAA record.
But power isn’t Candrea’s focus as the regular season comes to a close and he prepares for a shift in focus.
“You’re primarily going to see quality pitching and timely hitting and the power sometimes starts getting negated,” Candrea said. “But what we have shown is we have kids who can change a game in one swing. No matter who it is, it’s just a matter of doing it.”
That’ll be easier said than done this weekend against the Huskies’ 1-2 punch of Bryana Walker and Kaitlin Inglesby. Walker is 15-7 with a 1.71 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 118º innings while Inglesby is 11-4 with 2.04 ERA and 91 strikeouts.
But no matter the competition, Candrea knows that come crunch time, Arizona can’t simply rely on power.
“It’s not something we’re going to live on,” Candrea said. “On-base percentage is the key stat you have to have. Enough people get on base, you get a timely hit, you can produce runs.”
Timeliness could be the key in hostile Seattle, where the Wildcats will face a squad that has rebounded from a four-game losing streak to win 7 of 9, including a three-game sweep of Oregon State.
The Wildcats, though, are even hotter, and know this series could even play a factor in postseason seeding. Not that they’re paying attention.
“Things are starting to click a little bit more; offensively, defensively, that bond and that trust that comes along with the season being so long,” Fox said. “But what’s made this team successful is preparing for every game like it is our last. That’s kept our heads in the game.”
Also, the knowledge that in the rough-and-tumble Pac-12 — half of the teams in the national top 10 hail from the conference — there is no off-week.
“You want to be at your best, playing the best, down the stretch,” Fox said. “The Pac-12 is an amazing conference, so it is preparing you no matter what team it is. But this is a big boost for us. Looking at the rankings, we try not to do it, but you know they’re out there, and we know how good these teams are.”
That would make a weekend sweep all the more satisfying.
“If we come out of this weekend successful, it’s going to give us all the confidence in the world,” pitcher Kenzie Fowler said. “It’s going to be a dog fight. Two very evenly matched teams. We’re really excited. We’re going to be amped up.”