Thursday, March 28, 2013

Conference play begins today for six MW teams

Everything starts for real now.

Six of the seven Mountain West softball teams open conference play today in the first game of a 3-game weekend series.  Throw records out the window because everyone begins with a fresh slate with one common goal in mind:  Winning the regular season Mountain West championship and the accompanying NCAA Tournament bid.

With the Mountain West not having a postseason softball tournament, every game from this moment forward counts a little more.  In fact, the best way to think of it may be this:  Every game during the Mountain West conference season should be treated like a postseason tournament game.  'Win and advance' should be the motto because a game played March 28 means just as much as a game played on the final day of the regular season, May 11.

Teams that get too far behind in the conference standings may not have enough time to catch up.  Conversely, teams that win early in the conference season have a leg up the rest of the way.  With only 18 conference games and six league series, the season from this point forward will go quickly.  Indeed, NCAA Selection Sunday is only six weeks away.

The three Mountain West series that kick off conference play are all intriguing in their own way.  None may set the tone more than Fresno State versus Nevada.  The two conference newcomers (and former WAC rivals) meet at Bulldog Diamond today through Saturday, and the series is the only one in the Mountain West this weekend to pit teams with winning overall records.

The Bulldogs are 71-11 in their last 82 conference home games -- all played as a WAC member.  Fresno State has been virtually unbeatable at home for decades, and this season is not much different.  The Bulldogs are 10-2 at Bulldog Diamond this year, and both losses came in games that were tied in the seventh inning.  Fresno State's two home defeats this year are an extra-inning loss to Southern Miss with the international tiebreak rule in effect, and a 1-0 loss to 5th-ranked Cal in a game where freshman Jill Compton threw a complete-game, 1-hitter against the Bears.

Nevada, which has had three consecutive losing seasons, is 20-13 and off to its best start to a season since the 2009 campaign.  The Wolf Pack enter Mountain West play having won 10 of their past 11 games.  Over the past four seasons, the Nevada-Fresno State series has ended each time with the Bulldogs winning two of three games.  The Pack's only series win (two games to one) over the Bulldogs in school history came in the 2008 season, ironically during a year where Fresno State ended up ranked in the Top 10 and was one of 16 regional No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

San Diego State opens Mountain West play by hosting New Mexico, a team the Aztecs have dominated over the years.  While San Diego State is maybe the most formidable opponent in the conference, the Lobos are probably playing the Aztecs at the best possible time.  SDSU has not played a game in 11 days and could be a bit rusty after such a lengthy layoff in the middle of a season.  Then again, probably not.  But you never know.  It seems that most teams would rather take their chances against an Aztecs team that hasn't played in awhile rather than one riding a hot streak.

The Aztecs have been to five straight NCAA Tournaments, are No. 42 in the RPI (best in the Mountain West), and have done nothing so far to signal that they're anything but the conference favorites they were predicted to be in the preseason.

An intriguing series begins in Fort Collins today between Colorado State and UNLV.  The Rams enter Mountain West play on a 7-game conference winning streak dating to last season.  This is a series that could be dominated by pitching with two of the premier pitchers facing off likely twice, if not in all three games.

Junior Amanda Oliveto of UNLV and senior Kacie McCarthy of Colorado State have been very strong this season.  Oliveto has three marquee wins to her credit, defeating nationally-ranked Louisville, Tulsa and Virginia Tech.  McCarthy, the 2012 Mountain West Pitcher of the Year, is coming off a recent streak where she threw 21 2/3 scoreless innings.  Oliveto (with 12) and McCarthy (11) rank second and third, respectively, in wins among MW pitchers.

Nevada (0-0, 20-13) at Fresno State (0-0, 19-14)

Thursday, 6 pm PDT (Gametracker)
Friday, 6 pm PDT
Saturday, 1 pm PDT

Outlook:  This series matches the Mountain West's top hitting team (Nevada with a .328 batting average) against the conference's No. 2 pitching staff (Fresno State with a 2.59 team ERA).  The Pack lead the league in numerous offensive categories and have six starters batting over .300.  In addition, junior right-hander Karlyn Jones (13-4) has been strong in the circle, leading the MW in wins and holding opponents to a .227 average.  The trouble for Nevada is that only one other pitcher has a winning record, and that is Ariel Craig, who's 1-0 and has only pitched in one game all year.  In Fresno State, the Pack will face a young Bulldog team that has played far better at home than on the road.  In 12 home games, the Bulldogs have held opponents to two or fewer runs in a game 9 different times.  All 19 Fresno State wins have come from freshman pitchers and, most importantly, each seems to be gaining steam.  High school All-American Hannah Harris has won four consecutive games and may be pitching better than anyone at the moment.  Harris has not allowed more than one run in any of her last four wins.  Jill Compton and Taylor Langdon have each won Mountain West Pitcher of the Week honors this season, and while Compton leads the team in wins, Langdon actually leads the conference in ERA (1.45).  Compton and Nevada's Jones have allowed a slew of home runs (30 combined), and Jones has been the more consistent of the two.  But Compton has proven that when she's "on," she is tough to beat, especially at home.  Speaking of which, Fresno State has been hard to put away for opponents, and the Bulldogs have come from behind to win several games and have three walk-off wins.  This promises to be an exciting opening series in front of what will be -- by far -- the biggest crowds in Mountain West softball this weekend.

New Mexico (0-0, 16-20) at San Diego St. (0-0, 19-12)

Thursday, 6 pm PDT (Gametracker)
Friday, 6 pm PDT
Saturday, 1 pm PDT

Outlook: San Diego State enters Mountain West play on a 7-game winning streak where it has outscored opponents by a whopping 54-15 margin.  Four of those victories came via shutout, but the Aztecs may need to guard against some rust.  They arrive well-rested, but haven't played a game in 11 days.  Both the Aztecs and Lobos have played strong schedules, especially San Diego State.  Nine of the Aztecs' 12 losses this season have come against nationally ranked schools, including four vs. 2012 Women's College World Series teams (Oklahoma, Cal, and two versus Oregon). Additionally, SDSU has played 16 teams who qualified for last year's NCAA Tournament. It's safe to say Coach Kathy Van Wyk's team is battle tested, and that's a large reason why they are the clear favorite to win the Mountain West title.  The one-two pitching punch of senior Rebecca Arbino and freshman Danielle O'Toole has been formidable and they account for all but one of San Diego State's wins.  O'Toole is 8-5 with a 1.86 ERA and 77 strikeouts, while Arbino is 10-7 with a 1.91 ERA and 104 strikeouts.  New Mexico's offense has struggled this season, especially after All-MW hitter Chelsea Anaya went down with a season-ending injury earlier this month.  The Lobos are hitting a conference-worst .237 and they rank last in home runs, RBI and runs scored.  Against Arbino and O'Toole, it's hard to see where the runs will come from this weekend.  This series matches the two teams who finished first (SDSU) and last (UNM) in the Mountain West a year ago.

UNLV (0-0, 14-18) at Colorado St. (0-0, 14-14)

Thursday, 4 pm MDT (Gametracker)
Friday, 4 pm MDT
Saturday, 1 pm MDT

Outlook:  This series is all about Amanda Oliveto (12-9, 2.14 ERA) and it may turn out to be that way for UNLV all season.  How Oliveto has gone is precisely how the Rebels have gone.  She has been dominant for sure and it's safe to say that there is no player in the Mountain West more valuable to her team than Oliveto.  Want proof?  No pitcher on the Rebels team other than Oliveto has more than one win, and no one has an ERA under 6.00.  She has been the pitcher of record in 10 of UNLV's last 13 games, including the last five in a row, and has pitched over 100 more innings than anyone else on the staff.  Making things more difficult is the fact the Rebels need strong pitching in order to win, because no one on the team is hitting over .300.  This series matches the Mountain West's only two teams with fewer than 200 hits on the season.  Colorado State has had strong pitching outings from Kacie McCarthy, but has struggled when she's not in the circle.  Just like UNLV, no other pitcher on the squad has a winning record.  In fact, CSU's Holly Reinke is the only Rams pitcher aside from McCarthy to even win one game.   Reinke is 3-4.  Can an entire Mountain West series have both teams start the same pitcher over three consecutive games?  If it's going to happen, it could in Fort Collins this weekend, though we're guessing Reinke gets the start on Friday for CSU.  Much was expected of the Rams this year with nearly the entire team returning from last season's 27-22 team that finished tied for second in the Mountain West.  Consistency has been an issue for both UNLV and Colorado State in the preseason, and it won't be a surprise to see some low-scoring games take place this weekend in Fort Collins.