Arizona’s softball team is about to take its midterm immediately before its final exam.
Though, really, visiting Oregon is the toughest test in the land. We’re talking 300 questions, no multiple choice, plus a 3,000-word essay on mid-18th century Russian literature.
There is no way to study for the top-ranked Ducks, who head to Tucson for a three-game series beginning at 5 tonight.
“It’s a great way of preparing yourself for the postseason,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. “Oregon is a good team, very well-balanced, swing the bats well, good pitching. It’s a challenge to raise the bar a little bit, to start playing the game we’re going to need to play come postseason.”
The No. 9 Wildcats better sharpen up their No. 2 pencils, and their pitching.
Arizona (40-11, 13-8 Pac-12) was rocked for 19 runs in the first two games of a 1-2 weekend at Washington last week, though they salvaged a series-ending win with a gem from Estela Piñon. Piñon allowed two hits, none before the seventh inning, in a 2-0 win on a soaked Sunday afternoon in Seattle, as Kelsey Rodriguez’s third-inning two-run home run proved the difference. It was quite the turnaround from Friday, when the Huskies rallied from a pair of three-run deficits to beat Arizona 11-7 after the Wildcats doled out 10 walks.
On Sunday, Piñon halved that number, silencing Washington, and facing the second-best offense in the Pac-12 this week, she’ll have to be on her game.
“That was huge,” Candrea said of the series-ending win. “It brought me back to, those are the type of games you have to find a way to win. Estela threw one of the best games of the season, and Kelsey stepped up with a big hit. When you get into the postseason that’s what it’s all about, great pitching and defense and a timely hit.”
It isn’t just the Ducks’ bats that have Candrea wary, however, but the team’s superb balance.
In addition to an offense that leads the Pac-12 in hits and ranks second in batting average, Oregon offers the top pitching staff in the conference, no small part of the team’s record (47-6-1, 18-2-1). The Ducks pitchers have 91 more strikeouts than Arizona and 137 fewer walks, and their 1.73 team ERA leads the league.
Behind southpaw ace Cheridan Hawkins (28-4, 1.42 ERA) and righty Karissa Hovinga (15-1, 1.91 ERA), Oregon has allowed three or more runs just three times in the last 14 games, 12 of them wins (with one loss, to Arizona State last Friday, and a tie, to the Sun Devils on Sunday).
“They’ve got a lefty and a righty, a great contrast there, and the big thing is you don’t get a chance to see a lot of left-handers,” Candrea said.
“We’re preparing ourselves to see more from the left side, and with Hawkins, she spins the ball very well. It’s not a matter of speed as it is spin.”