Column: Arizona softball's last homestand will determine postseason positioning
Arizona outfielder Katiyana Mauga (34) hits deep into the outfield, bringing teammate Mandi Perez (55) home at Hillenbrand Stadium on Friday, March 25. The Wildcats are headed into the final stretch of the regular season.
Arizona softball is in the homestretch of the season.
Its five remaining series all come in Pac-12 Conference play and will go a long way in determining the Wildcats’ position when they begin postseason play next month. Arizona moved up to No. 17 this week in the USA Today NFCA Coaches Poll, one spot outside of the top 16.
The top 16-ranked teams at the end of the college softball season get to host a regional, a huge advantage for the home team. If the Wildcats get hot and manage to sneak in to the top eight, they would host a regional and have a chance to host a super regional if they won.
With the toughest stretch of Pac-12 Conference play ahead of the team, head coach Mike Candrea stressed the importance of the final five series.
“From here on out, you’re just kind of fighting for the ability to stay in the top 16 to host a regional, which is a big thing,” Candrea said. “In softball, it is pretty clear cut and dry. If you’re in the top eight and you win your regional, you’re going to host a super regional, so you’re playing for a lot right now at this stage of the game.”
With games remaining against opponents Oregon and UCLA, ranked above them, the Wildcats can certainly make a late surge in the rankings.
A road series victory in Eugene, Oregon, in the last weekend of April could go a long way in determining if there will be postseason action at Hillenbrand Stadium this season.
The pitching remains dominant. Both Danielle O’Toole and Taylor McQuillin looked sharp in the Wildcats 5-0 week. Arizona is second overall in the Pac-12 with a 2.47 ERA. O’Toole is second overall individually with an ERA of 2.04, which would be the lowest mark in the program since 2010.
O’Toole proved herself against top-ranked competition this year with shutouts against No. 11 Louisiana State University and No. 15 Tennessee. McQuillin had fewer opportunities at such opponents, but she has still faced the likes of No. 4 Alabama and No. 7 James Madison. With plenty of big games to go, the duo will get plenty more looks against top competition.
After a solid week of nonconference play for the offense, it is time for the Wildcats to even out their production or suffer the consequences of an unbalanced lineup. The offense was alive throughout the week and showed a more balanced attack against their non-conference opponents.
Candrea thought it was an important week for the lineup.
“It was a matter of gaining confidence again. We were struggling to get some production one through nine,” Candrea said. “I thought we were getting decent production one through four, one through five sometimes, but truthfully at this time of year you need production one through nine.”
The top of the lineup remains red-hot and the Wildcats made it a fifth week this season with a player being recognized by the Pac-12.
Mo Mercado won the Pac-12 player of the week after batting .599 with a home run and eight RBI in the Wildcats perfect week.
Katiyana Mauga now has 15 home runs on the season and is at 61 for her career. Mauga is an incredibly productive player who has showed a major change in her approach this year. She has 33 walks on the season and leads the team in OBP at a .493 clip.
Mauga is one of the most feared hitters in the country and she has proven how good she is by adjusting to the approach her opponents have.
For any fans of sabermetrics out there, Mauga currently has an absolutely ludicrous 1.303 OPS.
The Wildcats know this is the part of the year that will define the season. Just like Candrea stressed the importance of the scheduled games left, Mauga knows right where the teams needs to be as well.
“We need these wins,” Mauga said. “Especially because we’re at 17, 18, we need to get in to the top 16 so we can host regionals.”
The Wildcats head to Palo Alto, California, this weekend for a three-game series with Stanford, which begins Friday at 5 p.m.
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