Commentary

Top teams aren't rolling through early-season competition

Updated: March 3, 2008, 2:07 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The first 24 days of the 2008 season were a study in imperfection.

By the end of the season's fourth weekend a year ago, the top five teams in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll had a combined five losses.

[+] EnlargeSandra Smith
David Yerby Sandra Smith and Arkansas added to their win total this weekend.

Assuming Alabama, Arizona State, Tennessee, Texas A&M and UCLA make up this week's top five in an order to be determined, they will have a combined eight losses (it will be 10 losses if No. 5 Northwestern remains in that group after a 3-1 weekend).

At that same milepost a season ago, the top 10 had a combined 21 losses spread among 11 teams -- Washington and Northwestern were tied for No. 10 on March 6, 2007.

Considering the bottom half of the most recent top 10 lost just two games since those rankings came out -- and No. 7 Florida rebounded from a loss against Long Beach State by beating No. 8 Stanford -- the list of teams may not change in Tuesday's poll.

If so, the top 10, without the benefit of an extra team, will have 22 losses.

It's a landscape where Arkansas was run-ruled by Drake on Sunday and still came out of the weekend with plenty of bona fides as a team on the rise in the SEC and beyond.

Not that losing to Drake is any sign of shame -- just ask No. 11 Michigan, which lost to Drake a little more than a week ago and hasn't lost in 10 games since.

Arkansas traveled to the Wilson-DeMarini Invitational, hosted by Arizona State, with a 15-2 record and the fourth-most votes among teams outside the top 25. Coach Jamie Pinkerton's team improved to 18-2 with wins against San Jose State, Florida International and Creighton to start the tournament and outscored its opponents 32-7 along the way.

Not a bad start for a team that didn't win its 18th game last season until the middle of April and finished the campaign with a 21-43 record -- its fifth consecutive losing year.

Hired in the midst of those lean years, Pinkerton has turned things around by turning his team into one of the nation's top slugging lineups through the opening month. A year after hitting 28 home runs for the season, a mark that established a new program record, the Lady Razorbacks left Tempe with 29 home runs through 22 games this season.

"I think it's two or three things," Pinkerton said of the improvement. "One, we've had a renewed focus on hitting where the pitch is pitched, rather than turning on it and trying to pull everything. So we've really focused on drills and techniques. I think a lot of it is we're a year older. … I expected us to be a little more successful last year, but when you have 15 players that are sophomores and freshmen in the SEC -- that's a tough [conference] to be young in."

The last of those home runs was a grand slam from Sandra Smith -- her team-leading eighth of the season -- that tied Saturday's game against second-ranked Arizona State at 5-5 in the top of the fifth. The hosts eventually pushed across a run in the eighth inning to escape with a 6-5 win, but Arkansas had something of value to take into SEC play next weekend at South Carolina and later against heavyweights like Alabama and Tennessee.

"Last year, I don't think we were ever run-ruled by those teams, but we were never really in the game," Pinkerston said of the Tide and Lady Vols. "It was like 6-0, 5-0, 5-1 -- games like that against them. Part of the reason to come out here and play coach [Clint] Myers' team is I knew coming out here, they would be probably in the top eight when the polls came out. As it turned out last night, they were No. 2 and probably going to be No. 1."

Pinkerton blamed himself for the 10-0 loss against Drake on Sunday and said he didn't do enough to get his players turned around for an 11 a.m. local start after a late night in the Arizona State loss. But as results from across the country continue to demonstrate, it's not about perfection right now. It's about making the most of the learning curve.

Change at the Top?

As Pinkerton suggested, there may be a new No. 1 this week after top-ranked Alabama dropped a 6-3 decision to the hosts at the University of Washington Classic in Seattle. The Crimson Tide also polished off Nevada and Portland State on the trip, and they certainly have a case for remaining atop the polls given that every contender for the top spot has at least one blemish on its record. But fair or not, the rematch of last year's super regional, also won by the Huskies, was set up as the first real test on Alabama's schedule.

Alabama was without the services of injured All-American second baseman Lauren Parker throughout the weekend. As deep as coach Pat Murphy's lineup is, Parker was missed as the Tide left 10 runners on base after drawing eight walks against Washington.

Mostly, the rankings debate will be much ado about nothing. Alabama remains a championship contender and will have ample opportunity to showcase its wares with five of its next six games coming against Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi State.

On the other side of the field, Washington's win was a nice result for a team that drew attention for all the wrong reasons after an 18-0 loss against Wichita State the previous weekend. Freshmen Jace Williams (.474, 10 RBIs) and Aleah Macon (1.14 ERA, 59 K in 43 IP) continue to give the Huskies plenty of reasons for long-term optimism.

Duel in the Desert

It's early on the calendar, but considering Jennie Finch and Cat Osterman aren't going to be able to reprise last summer's epic NPF duels while both pitch for the national team, there may not be a better pitching confrontation this year than the one that transpired in Tucson on Saturday night. At least until Finch or Osterman squares off against Ueno in Beijing.

A week after a 13-inning marathon against Massachusetts, No. 10 Arizona needed 12 innings to outlast Angela Tincher and No. 24 Virginia Tech. The Wildcats and Hokies somehow combined for seven runs in the host's 4-3 win despite a combined 41 strikeouts from Tincher and Taryne Mowatt (only four of the seven runs in the game were earned).

Tincher clearly has the talent to make the Hokies a contender for Oklahoma City as long as she's in the circle, but the question for Virginia Tech will be run support.

Consider the average offensive production behind Tincher during her first three seasons, compared to the offensive support Cat Osterman received at Texas (inline table, right).

Head-to-head
Tincher (2005-07) Osterman (2002-03; 2005-06)
SLG: .384 .361
OBP: .346 .318
AVG: .273 .253
Runs per game: 3.77 3.45

Virginia Tech has provided a few more runs for Tincher, but factoring in the relative strength of the ACC compared to the Big 12, the offenses look pretty similar.

That Osterman led the Longhorns to three World Series appearances is perhaps a better testament to her dominance than any strikeout or shutout statistics. For Tincher to take the Hokies, she'll need more efforts like the one that scratched out three runs and seven hits against an ace like Mowatt -- no matter how the game ultimately ended.

At the San Diego Classic

The question for UCLA's Anjelica Selden entering the season was how much she would contribute after a disappointing junior season. After just three-and-a-half weeks, the question now seems to be, is she on the verge of a historically great senior season?

Selden was at it again in San Diego. She carried the Bruins through their toughest test of the weekend, going the distance in a 2-1 extra-inning win against No. 20 San Diego State with 13 strikeouts and nary a walk. She now has 105 strikeouts against four walks in 66 innings. I can't find any hard data on strikeout-to-walk ratio in the NCAA record books (if someone knows better, please e-mail it my way), but better than 25-to-1 seems sort of impressive. Sticking with the Osterman theme -- because if you're going to set a benchmark, it might as well be her -- the lefty's best was about 15-to-1.

At the Eller Media Stadium Classic

California couldn't beat host UNLV at the tournament in Las Vegas, but that was about the only thing the Golden Bears will want to leave in the city.

Cal piled up 36 runs in posting a 4-1 record for the weekend with wins against No. 13 Hawaii, Long Beach State, Western Kentucky and Pittsburgh. Coach Diane Ninemire's team has now won 12 of its last 16 after a slow start and looks ready to make some noise in the Pac-10. And while part of that is due to an offense that appears much improved over last season, a big part of it also stems from 6-foot-3 Marissa Drewrey's strong start.

After another impressive weekend, Drewrey is 9-4 with a 1.83 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 91.2 innings. As a freshman, Drewrey struck out 4.0 batters and walked 4.2 batters per seven innings. Now the walks are down to 3.6 and the strikeouts are up to 8.6 per seven innings and Cal has its ace to go with impressive freshman Valerie Arioto.

One of the teams that helped fuel Cal's offensive revival was Long Beach State, which surrendered 15 runs to the Bears in a loss Saturday. But with eight games in six days after taking last week off following a trip to Hawaii, the 49ers were due one mulligan.

Perhaps more important in the long run was a midweek 2-1 win in 10 innings against Florida that knocked the Gators from the ranks of the unbeaten and showcased Long Beach freshman standout Brooke Turner. In going all 10 innings for the win, Turner allowed just five hits, walked three and struck out 16. So far in her brief college career, Turner has defeated Florida, blanked Hawaii twice and lost a 1-0 pitcher's duel against Stanford despite allowing just four hits.

Think Northwestern and UCLA, which face Long Beach next week, are paying attention?

At the NFCA Leadoff Classic

Michigan and Tennessee were clearly the big winners at the Leadoff Classic -- aside from the event itself, which escaped the traditional rain delays -- but those two heavyweights weren't the only ones who came out of the weekend feeling good about the results.

No. 19 DePaul lived on the edge for most of its stay in Georgia, but came out with a 5-1 record that included three one-run victories.

No. 15 Louisiana-Lafayette finished the weekend on a slight downswing after losses against Iowa and Michigan, but it wasn't all bad for the Ragin' Cajuns. For one thing, Holly Tankersley earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the tournament after hitting three home runs in five games. And in a key development moving forward, sophomore Brittany Cuevas continued to work back into form after missing the start of the season. A healthy Cuevas, who now has 15 strikeouts and no walks in 8.2 innings, should help keep freshman sensation Ashley Brignac fresh.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.