Arizona softball enters the weekend with a two-game lead over the Utah Utes in the Pac-12 Conference, and with six games left in the season, the Wildcats host the rival Arizona State Sun Devils in their final home series of the regular season.
The No. 23 Sun Devils are coming off a series against the Utes where they dropped two out of three at home and they will put their top 25 ranking in Tucson.
The Wildcats remain in the No. 2 spot, according to the ESPN.com/USA Softball polls, and even received onevote for first-place after winning their home series against the Oregon Ducks last weekend.
After taking the first two matchups against the Ducks, the Wildcats stumbled in the sixth inning against them on Sunday. Arizona starter Danielle O’Toole gave up two solo home runs that gave the Ducks the 4-3 score they won the game by.
“I think we should have had it,” O’Toole said of the final game against the Ducks. “I take responsibility for that loss. Knowing that we need a sweep [against ASU], I know we should be looking at it a game at a time, but we’re looking to go for [a sweep].”
It will be only the second time in her career O’Toole has matched up with the Sun Devils; she spent two seasons playing at San Diego State University before transferring to the UA, but as soon as she stepped foot on campus three seasons ago, she understood the bitter rivalry between the two schools, saying “you just knew” right away.
Last season, O’Toole appeared in all three games in Tempe, picking up a win, save and loss throughout the weekend.
She shut out the Sun Devils with a complete game one-hitter in the teams’ first Pac-12 games last season, got the save in the Wildcats’ game-two victory and took the loss 3-2 in the third.
Sun Devils slugger Chelsea Gonzales homered off of Taylor McQuillin last season, and she leads ASU with a .372 average, 10 home runs and 41 RBIs this season.
“Every game is a new game,” McQuillin said. “No matter what, even if she hits a home run off of me, it’s like now this time she’s going to fight even harder, so I have to fight even harder. This year is very different than last year.”
After beginning the season 13-0, McQuillin has struggled in her last two conference starts. She picked up her first loss of the season on the road against the Utes, allowing six earned runs in 5.1 innings.
After defeating the New Mexico State Lobos, she struggled in 3.2 innings, surrendering six more earned runs to the Ducks. With the season coming down to the home stretch, the Wildcats need McQuillin to get back on track.
“I think the last two conference series [against Utah and Oregon] that we’ve played have particularly been very good teams, both ranked in the top 10,” McQuillin said. “I mean, we kind of didn’t get the best schedule toward the end of the season; we’re playing really tough teams.”
O’Toole noted her teammate had struggled her last two times in the circle during Pac-12 play, but to get back to Oklahoma City she knows she needs her sidekick in McQuillin to make it there.
“I would say it’s important [for McQuillin to pick things up], but we’re not dwelling on it,” O’Toole said. “I’m not looking at her any different. We need her, so you can’t sit there and dwell on stuff like that.”
The Sun Devils lost their ace from 2016, Kelsey Kessler, to a transfer, and this season they have three pitchers who have thrown at least 70 innings.
For comparison, only McQuillin and O’Toole have surpassed 31 innings for the Wildcats.
Without a true No. 1 pitcher, the Sun Devils will have to be careful with the Wildcats’ Pac-12 leading offense.
Arizona leads the conference in average, runs, home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage, walks and on-base percentage.
“Offensively, it’s a very talented group,” said UA head coach Mike Candrea. “It’s not often you can look at a year and go ‘God, every piece of the puzzle is there.’ You still have to go out and do, it but I think this group overall has really been a consistent force offensively. I hope we can continue to do that; we need to continue to do that.”
On paper, the Wildcats lineup has an advantage over the Sun Devils staff. The series could spark the Wildcats to an even tighter grip atop the Pac-12 Conference, but any kind of slip can give way to the Utes’ chances of sneaking back in to the race.
The series begins on Friday, April 28, at 6 p.m. MST at Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium.
Follow Christopher Deak on Twitter