Arizona rolls through the first round of tournament
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Arizona wasn't thrilled to leave the comfortably familiar confines of Tucson and trek across the country to begin the NCAA tournament just a traffic jam away from the Manhattan skyline. But to whatever extent the two-time defending champions managed to disguise their disdain off the field, they failed miserably in the role of gracious guests on the field at Hofstra.
The Wildcats rolled through the field at the Hempstead Regional with three shutout wins and advanced to face Oklahoma in next week's Tucson Super Regional. As a result, it might now be the rest of the postseason field hoping the champs won't hit the road again, because the accidental tourists looked ready for a return trip to Oklahoma City.
As has been the case all season, in good times and bad.
Arizona also looked little like the teams that won the past two national championships. Interim coach Larry Ray might be a master technician of the short game that thrived with All-Americans like Caitlin Lowe and perfect fits like Autumn Champion under coach Mike Candrea, but he's playing with different cards this season, Arizona was last in stolen bases among Pac-10 teams and tied with Washington for last in sacrifice bunts heading into the postseason.
On the other hand, Ray's offense was also No. 1 in the nation at 1.58 home runs per game and fourth overall in slugging percentage.
And forced to play their first two games Saturday after rain washed out the opening day of play Friday, the Wildcats needed just 27 outs spread over two run-rule wins in the span of a few hours to produce six home runs.
"Last year we relied on speed," Ray said. "This year we don't have that kind of speed. We've got a couple of kids that run OK, but I haven't run a whole lot, mainly because of the home runs. I don't want to get someone thrown out with Jenae [Leles] up to bat when the possibility with one swing she can score a bundle."
Among the team's leaders in home runs, RBIs and batting average entering the weekend, Leles was actually one of the few Arizona sluggers who didn't go yard in Hempstead -- although she did finish with three RBIs. All told, five players hit home runs, including the sixth of the season for leadoff hitter Brittany Lastrapes (now slugging .565 on the season) and dingers Nos. 13 and 14 for senior Callista Balko, the No. 7 hitter in the order.
Even the bottom of the order proved dangerous, a trait that has long been a staple of Arizona softball. Lauren Schutzler and Cyndi Duran combined for four hits and three runs in the team's 5-0 win against Hofstra on Sunday. In three games, Schutzler piled up six hits and four runs.
"I've been alternating a couple of kids at the bottom of the lineup with Cyndi Duran and Adrienne Action in the nine spot, and they've been doing a great job," Ray said. "Combined they're both hitting .300. And then in the eight spot, Lauren Schutzler, she's starting to come around and doing a good job, also batting over .300. So once we can get contributions from them and then come up with the players that swing the bat a little more, I feel confident. They're table-setters and they're doing their job and getting on base because as you saw, we have a little pop at the front of the order too."
Of course, one element of last season's championship remains quite visibly in place. Taryne Mowatt worked through an up-and-down regular season, much as she did in the months leading up to last season's magical run at the World Series. Her ERA rested on the wrong side of 2.00 as late as the middle of April but after coming out on the losing end of a supposed pitching duel against Arizona State ace Katie Burkhart that turned into a 9-8 slugfest, Mowatt rolled through the final three weeks of the regular season.
That held true in Hempstead, where she allowed just six hits against 19 strikeouts in 15 shutout innings.
"She's got all of her pitches right now," Ray said. "It seemed like the first half of the year, she didn't have that changeup very often. And for her to be as successful as she was last year. I think she's going to need that to keep the hitters off. Because she's not tremendously overpowering just with her speed; she's got to throw that little bit of doubt into a hitter."
She also isn't giving hitters the opportunity to come to the plate with runners on base. Anyone who watched Mowatt in the World Series last season can probably recall her deftly working out of countless jams, many of her own making. Overall last season, she walked 168 batters in 370 innings. And even though she won't throw as many innings this season, thanks to the arrival of Lindsey Sisk and quality innings late in the season from sophomore Sarah Akamine, her walk rate remains in that same unsettling range.
But since the loss against Arizona State on April 19, including the games in Hempstead, she's walked more than two hitters in a game on just one occasion.
"I think I'm getting ahead of batters more and then toward the end of counts, I'm able to throw it off the plate," Mowatt explained. "But I think for the most part I've thrown strikes to begin the count better in the end of the year than I did in the beginning."
Arizona might have been unenthused about changing time zones -- perhaps the lone frown to be found Saturday creased Mowatt's face when she momentarily thought the team wouldn't be able to fly out until Monday -- but a team that turned in some listless results at times during the regular season certainly seemed focused on taking out their frustrations on the opposition on Long Island.
Five things learned during regionals• Alabama matched Arizona home run for home run and then some, hitting eight of them while sweeping its way through three consecutive wins in the Tuscaloosa Regional. Lauren Parker, back in a groove as the team's designated player after missing 18 games prior to returning to the starting lineup in the conference tournament, hit one of the home runs and makes the Crimson Tide that much more dangerous from top to bottom.
But amidst all the balls leaving the park, the most telling home run might have been the one that needed a few hops to get out of the infield. Brittany Rogers' inside-the-park home run against Jacksonville State added one more note to the résumé of the nation's most dangerous leadoff hitter. Anyone who saw the impact Caitlin Lowe had on defenses in Oklahoma City the past two seasons will understand why Rogers could be as dangerous on the bases at the World Series as Alabama's sluggers would be aiming for the inviting fence at Hall of Fame Stadium. For more on Rogers' remarkable speed, Tommy Deas' eloquent feature in the Tuscaloosa News is recommended reading.
• The ACC has some work to do unless Virginia Tech ace Angela Tincher finds some extra eligibility.
North Carolina didn't even play a game on the final day of the regional it hosted after going two-and-out -- without ever playing No. 15 seed Georgia. Florida State fared no better in the Tuscaloosa Regional, losing two in a row without ever playing No. 3 seed Alabama. Even Georgia Tech, while at least making a case for its inclusion in the field with a win against South Florida, bowed out on the wrong end of a 14-3 cumulative score in its two losses against Florida and Central Florida.
The rather stunning demise of the Tar Heels rates as the biggest disappointment. After a tough 3-0 loss against BYU in which Tar Heels ace Danielle Spaulding struck out 14 but gave up a late three-run home run to Angeline Quiocho, things got strange in the elimination game against Campbell. A Tar Heels team that committed just 33 errors in 60 games leading up NCAA tournament committed six errors in seven innings. The result was a 7-6 loss in which all seven runs for the Fighting Camels were unearned.
• Momentum is good; run production is better. Three seeded teams were forced to play a winner-take-all game Sunday after dropping potential clinchers earlier in the day (No. 9 seed LSU, No. 13 seed Tennessee and No. 16 Fresno State also played two games Sunday, but each had to win its first game just to force a second). Each of the three wasted little time turning the underdog's momentum into deficits. No. 1 Florida scored three in the first inning against Central Florida and rolled to a 10-0 win. No. 12 Stanford put up three in the first inning against Massachusetts and cruised to a 6-0 win. No. 11 Northwestern waited longer but claimed a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning against DePaul and held on for a 3-2 win. Each underdog had one of the top pitchers in the nation -- Central Florida's Allison Kime, Massachusetts' Brandice Balschmiter and DePaul's Becca Heteniak -- and plenty of momentum. But in each case, the higher seed had the better offense.
• Vanessa Soto is the key to softball success in Louisiana. Last season, Soto was a member of the LSU team that advanced out of a loaded Palo Alto Regional and played Arizona State tough in the Tempe Super Regional. Now Soto is a big reason why unseeded Louisiana Lafayette is heading to the Houston Super Regional at the expense of the hosts in the Baton Rouge Regional. An offseason transfer, Soto picked up multiple hits in each of Louisiana Lafayette's three wins in Baton Rouge. That included three hits, one run and one RBI against her old teammates in a 9-3 win Saturday that kept the Ragin' Cajuns in the winner's bracket and set up Sunday's 6-3 clincher.
• Conference bragging rights isn't the only debate worth staging. Putting aside the SEC vs. Pac-10 salvos for a week (although the Pac-10 undeniably took the early lead by sending five teams through to the super regionals, including unseeded Cal), is Megan Gibson going to get squeezed on national player-of-the-year honors?
All Gibson did for Texas A&M in the College Station Regional was throw three consecutive shutouts, capped off by a no-hitter against Louisiana Tech on Sunday. All told, Gibson worked 21 innings and allowed just six hits and two walks against 36 strikeouts in two wins against Louisiana Tech and one against Stephen F. Austin. And while it wasn't the biggest weekend at the plate for the team's home run and RBIs leader, Gibson did drive in a run to help her own cause in the no-hitter.
There seems to be an undercurrent of dissent when it comes to Gibson's candidacy on the grounds that she's perceived as neither the single best hitter nor the single best pitcher. Which is fine, except that the award is for player of the year. And while Gibson might not be quite as prolific a pitcher as some or as prolific a hitter as others, she's the only one in the conversation on both counts.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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