Mowatt powers Arizona's defense

Taryne Mowatt doesn't just benefit from the defense, she actively pitches to it. Arizona's staff ace is growing into her new role by taking advantage of her team's strengths.

Updated: April 11, 2007, 11:55 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Peer review doesn't scare Taryne Mowatt.

Taryne Mowatt
Chris WIlliams/Icon SMITaryne Mowatt kept Arizona State from scoring on Friday and Saturday.
Pitching in front of a collection of current and former aces filling various roles at Hillenbrand Stadium during No. 6 Arizona's series against No. 9 Arizona State -- a group that included Cat Osterman, Alicia Hollowell, Nancy Evans and Katie Burkhart -- Mowatt turned in a weekend's worth of work worthy of the company.

The junior right-hander led the Wildcats to a pair of 1-0 wins, throwing her first career Pac-10 no-hitter on Friday and turning around a day later to again blank the Sun Devils while allowing just two hits. Against a team averaging six runs per game, Mowatt struck out 21 in 14 total innings, allowed just one walk and held every batter not named Kaitlin Cochran without a hit.

"I definitely think that was the best two games in a row I've thrown all season," Mowatt allowed in a colossal understatement. "I was hitting my spots and I had my offspeed working and everything came together."

With highly-touted freshman Amanda Williams academically ineligible and fellow freshman Sarah Akamine filling a stop-gap role as the team's second starter, Mowatt effectively is Arizona pitching at the moment. Considering everything else Mike Candrea's team brings to the table, it's not entirely accurate to say the Wildcats will go as far as Mowatt takes them. But they aren't going far without her.

Mowatt (21-7 this season) blew past the Sun Devils with a dazzling display of command and guile. The rest of the Pac-10, as well as any potential postseason opponents, had to be rolling their collective eyes at the thought of another Arizona ace taking charge.

Here we go again.

Mowatt doesn't physically resemble Hollowell or other hard-throwing giants of recent vintages, but the way she worked the strike zone and confounded Arizona State with a devastating changeup was just as imposing as anyone's heat. And it's not like Mowatt, who now has 274 strikeouts in 179.2 innings this season, can't bring it when she needs to.

Her success against Arizona State was a measure of how she's brought all those pieces together in her first season as Arizona's No. 1 pitcher.

"I feel like I've grown a little bit mentally," Mowatt said. "When I first started, I was a little shaky, but now I think I'm becoming more of a pitcher rather than just a thrower. I go out there and I have a game plan, and I visualize before every pitch what I want it to do. I watch film and I kind of know the batters that I'm facing, so I think I've worked on my mental side of pitching a lot."

It doesn't hurt to have one of the nation's best defenses behind her. The Wildcats aren't quite as sure-handed as they were in committing just 38 errors in 65 games last season, but they're still about as reliable as any team currently out there. Against Arizona State, they committed just one error in two games, compared to four errors by the Sun Devils.

Mowatt doesn't just benefit from the defense, she actively pitches to it. With faith in the gloves behind her, she can make use of her full arsenal at all times. In Saturday's win, she relied on a leaping grab from Caitlin Lowe in front of the fence in center to steal an extra-base hit from Ashley Muenz and a smooth play by Sam Bannister to catch Cochran off second base for a double play on a line out to first.

"Having a defense that works hard every play, it gives me confidence in where I can throw, because I know I don't have to be scared to throw a certain pitch," Mowatt said. "I know I have eight other girls out there working just as hard as I am. It's just great to have defense like that, because I feed off of them making great plays, and hopefully they feed off of me making great pitches."

Now the Wildcats sit a game clear of Oregon and Oregon State for the conference lead. Just as important, they might have gained the upper hand on their in-state rival when it comes to divvying up host sites for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, as they did last season. And that could once again provide an Arizona team that battled adversity early in the season with a chance to play for a spot in Oklahoma City without ever leaving the comforts of Tucson.

"I think it's kind of a similar season," Mowatt said. "I mean, we've had our ups and downs this season, as well as last season, and I think we're kind of finding our stride right now and finding a good rhythm."

Elsewhere in the Pac-10
Few words have quite as much versatility as "interesting." A simple change of inflection takes it from a statement of fascination to one of indictment. So whatever your take on the current situation in Westwood, it's safe to say these are interesting times for No. 15 UCLA after splitting a pair of slugfests against No. 17 Washington.

The Bruins opened Pac-10 play last weekend with the annual visit from Arizona State and Arizona, dropping the lone game against the Sun Devils and splitting a pair against the Wildcats. Considering both opponents are ranked ahead of the Bruins, taking one of three wasn't the end of the world, even at the friendly confines of Eason Stadium. But losing the two games by a combined score of 17-2, coming on the heels of a home loss against UC Santa Barbara to wrap up nonconference play, turned a few heads.

After the graduation of Andrea Duran, Caitlin Benyi and Emily Zaplatosch, hitting was supposed to be the question mark for the Bruins this season. And things only seemed to get worse in February, when senior Ashley Herrera suffered a season-ending knee injury while legging out the team's first hit of the season.

And yet Friday's 10-6 win against the Huskies marked the seventh time this year's team has scored double digits, three more times than they managed that all last season.

As a team, the Bruins are hitting .312 this season. Even taking into account the inevitable statistical slippage associated with conference play in a league where every team has spent time in the top 25 this season, they should finish ahead of last season's .289 average.

Seven different players have hit at least four home runs and six different players are slugging at least .500. From freshman Megan Langenfeld stepping in and hitting .344 with 26 RBIs (including a pair over the weekend) to senior Lisa Dodd boosting her average more than 100 points to .363 with 31 RBIs and a team-high nine home runs, the Bruins are hitting and hitting all through the batting order.

Unfortunately, UCLA's hitters have needed all of those hits and more in support of a pitching staff struggling to find a similar groove  and to support themselves in the field after matching last season's error total in just 34 games this season.

And never was that more evident than in Saturday's 8-6 loss.

Langenfeld, who has pulled double duty all season, started strong in the game but got the hook after a double and a single from the Huskies to lead off the top of the sixth. Coming on in relief for the fourth time this season, Selden couldn't close the door, allowing six hits and five runs (four earned) while recording just three outs.

Selden posted a 0.44 ERA in five relief appearances during conference play last season, but in her four relief appearances so far this season, she's posted an 8.03 ERA (her season ERA is 2.37, but it's a less unsightly 1.83 as a starter). With Dodd focused almost solely on hitting this season (she's thrown just 14.1 innings), Selden's relief woes put more pressure on freshmen Langenfeld and Whitney Baker. And while they've thrown well, combining for a 10-3 record and a 1.56 ERA, the two newcomers are best suited for now as complementary pieces behind Selden.

• For Washington, the weekend was a success in its own right. The Huskies managed to take a game at home against Arizona State last weekend to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Sun Devils and Arizona Wildcats, but they scored just two runs in three games. Piling up 14 runs in two games against the Bruins (paced by Lauren Greer's five RBIs) to move to 2-3 in conference play demonstrated the team is capable of scoring some runs when Danielle Lawrie isn't able to blank the opposition.

No Pac-10 schedule is kind, but a stretch of eight consecutive conference road games (as well as a nonconference game against Portland State) would have seemed more daunting coming off two losses in Westwood and a 1-4 conference record.

• With its first eight conference games at home (and correspondingly, 10 of its final 13 conference games on the road), No. 12 Oregon needed to make an early statement that the Pac-10 is eight teams deep this season. So far, so good.

The Ducks improved to 3-2 in conference play by splitting a weekend series against in-state rival No. 18 Oregon State. And while that might seem like a modest start to a homestand, it's a notable step up from last season, when the Ducks went 4-17 to finish a distant last in the league.

Last season, only two Ducks hit better than .300 on a team that scored by far the fewest runs in the league. This year, doing her best Kaitlin Cochran imitation, freshman Jenny Salling is hitting .524 to lead a lineup that is collectively hitting .344. Salling's home run and two RBIs weren't enough to keep her team from falling 9-7 against the Beavers on Friday, but she came back with a double and an RBI in Saturday's 4-3 win.

• Rarely will a Bay Area derby between No. 10 Stanford and Cal take fourth billing in the Pac-10, but such is life for the Cardinal and Bears in a loaded conference this season. But as unranked Cal proved in taking two of three (one at Stanford and two at home), there simply are no easy outs in the league this season.

Diane Ninemire's team has struggled to find consistent innings in the circle this season, compiling a 4.16 team ERA, but Lauren Frankiewicz ended a personal two-week losing streak by blanking Stanford 3-0 in the first game and coming back with six innings of one-run ball for the 9-1 win in the third game.

SEC
The Pac-10 had the most intriguing schedule of the weekend, but the three heavyweights who give the SEC the most representation in the top 10 (all are actually ranked in the top five) all had their own adventures.

• No. 1 Tennessee hit the road for the first time in conference play and did a nice job of both defending its national ranking and not letting a team once viewed as a conference rival up off the mat, sweeping three games from struggling Georgia. The wins marked the first time any SEC team took three in a row at Georgia since 2001.

The Lady Vols headed to Athens last season with a 10-game conference winning streak, only to drop two of three against the Bulldogs. Monica Abbott took the loss in the rubber match of that series, allowing eight hits and six earned runs. But there would be no repeat this season, as Abbott seemed to suggest with a five-inning perfect game in Tennessee's win in the series opener on Saturday.

Abbott's pitching aside, India Chiles continues to set the tone for the offense. Boasting a .467 average and .519 on-base percentage on the season, Chiles picked up 10 hits in 12 at-bats over the weekend.

• No. 3 Alabama, which appears to have few obstacles in its path before a season-ending showdown in Knoxville, rolled to a three-game sweep against Auburn. The Crimson Tide scored 27 runs in three games and needed only five innings to secure wins in two of the games.

Ace Chrissy Owens allowed eight hits and four runs in Sunday's finale, after pitching seven scoreless innings over Saturday's two games, but she never allowed the Tigers to get within three runs of the Tide on Sunday after her teammates staked her to early runs.

• No. 5 LSU suffered the lone loss of the weekend among the SEC's top three teams, dropping the series opener against South Carolina before outscoring the Gamecocks 10-0 to win the final two games. The loss on Friday ended a streak of eight consecutive games in which the Tigers had scored at least three runs.

Dani Hofer picked up both shutouts to clinch the series, striking out nine and allowing just two hits while going the distance in the finale. That's important not so much because of any negative reflection on ace Emily Turner, who took the tough-luck loss in the opener, but because of what it says about Hofer's continued development. Texas A&M, Northwestern and a couple of other contenders could make a case when it comes to the best one-two pitching punch in the college game, but Turner and Hofer appear to be the top of the class at the moment.

Big 12
• The most notable Big 12 result came well before winter weather confused the weekend schedule, as No. 11 Baylor remained unbeaten in conference play with a 3-1 road win against No. 4 Texas A&M on Wednesday.

Lisa Ferguson, who was so instrumental in Baylor taking two games from Arizona earlier in the season, again showed a flair for big-game pitching, allowing just six hits and no earned runs in eight innings of work against Amada Scarborough and the Aggies.

The senior wasn't nearly as effective in getting knocked out of the circle against Texas Tech over the weekend, but she'll likely get another chance to shine in the spotlight when the Bears travel to Texas this Wednesday.

• Arizona wasn't the only top team to pull out a pair of 1-0 wins over the weekend, as No. 4 Texas A&M used two pitching gems from Amanda Scarborough and Megan Gibson to get past Nebraska's great hurlers and rebound from the midweek loss to Baylor.

The Aggies sit in fourth in the conference standings, but they've played arguably the four toughest teams in the league to open conference play (although unbeaten Missouri would argue that point after sweeping a two-game set against Oklahoma State over the weekend).

The more important negative number for Jo Evans' team is one or fewer runs scored in five of its last six games. Texas A&M rose to its lofty national perch on the strength of tremendous balance between pitching and hitting. Scarborough and Gibson are doing their part in the circle, but both double-duty players and their teammates need to keep providing runs at the plate, even against elite pitching like they've faced to open conference play.

• No. 13 Texas continued a midseason offensive funk that has the Longhorns resembling the run-starved team that couldn't provide Cat Osterman with quite enough support in Oklahoma City in recent years.

One week after dropping two against Missouri, Texas managed just a split at home against Kansas, rebounding for a 3-2 win after losing the opener 2-0.

A lot of teams struggle to score runs against Kansas ace Kassie Humphreys, who was on the hook for both a win and a loss in the series despite not allowing an earned run in 10.2 total innings, but it's becoming something of a trend for Connie Clark's team. With both Tallie Thrasher (.235, 2 RBIs in seven Big 12 games) and Kacie Gaskin (.227, 3 RBIs) struggling to produce runs like they did in nonconference play, the Longhorns are feeling Desiree Williams' absence even more.

Elsewhere
• Weather seriously derailed the second week of play in Big Ten play. After waiting two months for its home opener, No. 8 Michigan saw all four of its scheduled games against Penn State and Ohio State wiped out by cold and snow. Even if the Wolverines are able to play a scheduled home game against Ball State on Tuesday, they won't play their second home game of the season until April 27.

No. 7 Northwestern had two games against Purdue canceled by the weather but managed to get in two wins against Indiana on Sunday. Freshman Nicole Pauly's torrid streak at the plate finally came to an end, as she failed to pick up a hit in either game, but Garland Cooper didn't need the protection one spot ahead of Pauly in the order. Cooper hit home runs in both games, giving her a single-season school record of 16 for the season. With 16 home runs and just 13 strikeouts this season, the first-team ESPN.com All-American remains one of the most disciplined sluggers in the game.

Iowa fell off the pace in advance of next weekend's series against Michigan, dropping two games at Wisconsin on Sunday after a pair of games against Minnesota were canceled by weather to start the weekend.

• No. 21 Hawaii just keeps rolling in the WAC, moving to 11-1 with a three-game sweep at New Mexico State. The win capped off an eight-game road trip to the mainland that saw Hawaii win seven in a row after dropping the first game at San Jose State last weekend.

Coach Bob Coolen's team now gets nearly two weeks off (minus a game against Chaminade on April 17) to prepare for a series against Fresno State that could not only clinch the regular-season league title but go a long way toward solidifying an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if Hawaii stumbled in the conference tournament.

• Massachusetts seized early control of the Atlantic 10 standings, sweeping two games from previously unbeaten St. Louis to move to 6-0 in conference play. More on the resurgence of the Minutewomen, who started the season ranked in the top 25 but entered A-10 play 13-12-1, on Thursday.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. 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.