Friday, April 5, 2013

Weekend preview: 3 more big series on the way

By Sunday, five Mountain West softball teams will already have completed one-third of their conference schedules.  With only an 18-game conference slate, the time to stay in contention for the Mountain West regular-season title is now, and teams can not afford to take even a single game lightly.

Perhaps no conference series this weekend is more crucial than San Diego State visiting Nevada.  The Aztecs and Wolf Pack join Fresno State as teams that have already won 20+ games, and this series will go a long way towards determining the Mountain West champion and the NCAA automatic bid that comes along with it.

San Diego State (3-0) heads into week two as one of two conference unbeatens, along with Colorado State, and the Aztecs have won 11 straight overall.  There's a big caveat there.  All 11 wins came either on San Diego State's home field or in the San Diego Classic II played in adjacent Santee.  The Aztecs are the only Mountain West team not to play a true road game this season.

Meanwhile, Nevada is 7-1 at home, but 1-2 in Mountain West play and in a bit of an offensive funk, especially for a team known for power.  The Pack, after scoring 65 runs on an 8-game homestand two weeks ago, scored just 13 runs during a 5-game road swing at Fresno State and Sacramento State.  In three of its past five games, Nevada has failed to score an earned run.

Things won't get much easier against the Aztecs' one-two pitching punch of Rebecca Arbino and Danielle O'Toole, part of San Diego State's conference-leading ERA of 1.91.  The pair have 10 shutouts on the season, including six during the Aztecs' current 11-game winning streak.

Nevada can't afford to be swept at home by San Diego State, as it would all but eliminate the Wolf Pack from the conference title race.  While it wouldn't come close to mathematically knocking Nevada out of the race, falling five games back with only 12 to play would likely be too much to overcome, particularly when it would mean both SDSU and Fresno State hold the tiebreaker in the event of a tie.

San Diego State, on the other hand, can signal once more that it's the team to beat with a sweep or even a series win.  No Mountain West squad won a series on the road last weekend.

Fresno State heads to UNLV to face the Rebels in a key battle.  While the Bulldogs hold a commanding 43-11 all-time lead in the series, UNLV swept a non-conference doubleheader last April in Fresno in what can only be described as one of the poorest efforts in Fresno State softball history.  That day, the Bulldogs blew a 4-run lead in one game with their then-senior All-American Michelle Moses pitching. They also committed five errors and allowed 29 hits -- the most ever allowed in a home doubleheader in program history. UNLV's 17 hits in the nightcap tied the record for the most hits allowed in a single game by the Bulldogs in the 30+ year history of the program.

It's safe to say that Fresno State will have to play better to have a chance this weekend in Las Vegas, where the Rebels have already beaten nationally-ranked Tulsa and Louisville this year.  UNLV pitcher Amanda Oliveto has been the key to everything for the Rebels this season. When she faltered last week in Fort Collins, UNLV was swept by the Rams.  Oliveto allowed 26 earned runs, walked 17, and hit five Colorado State batters in a nightmare weekend where her season ERA rose more than one full point from an impressive 2.15.

Fresno State will counter with the Mountain West's No. 2 pitching staff, including rapidly-improving freshman Hannah Harris, who's now gone 17 straight innings without allowing an earned run.  Harris tossed 11 innings last weekend without giving up an earned run to a Nevada team that entered play having won 10 of its past 11 games and with a conference-leading .327 team batting average.

Boise State is in Albuquerque to face New Mexico this weekend with both teams looking for their first wins in Mountain West play.  For the Broncos, it'll be their conference opener as they were idle last weekend.  For New Mexico, it'll be a week in which the Lobos will want to bounce back from a tough go in San Diego with some frustrating losses.  UNM's pitching staff allowed a total of just one earned run to San Diego State on the Aztecs' home field, but were swept in three straight games.  In two of the three contests, New Mexico and SDSU were tied 0-0 as late as the sixth inning.

Colorado State will play a 3-game, non-conference road series at nationally-ranked Texas A&M.  The Rams have won six straight games, outscoring opponents 57 to 19 in the process.  Winning this series at A&M could potentially give Colorado State a big push upwards in the RPI.  The Aggies are ninth, while CSU remains outside the top 100 at No. 104.

San Diego St. (3-0, 23-12) at Nevada (1-2, 22-16)
Friday, 3 pm PDT
Saturday, 1 pm PDT
Sunday, 1 pm PDT

Outlook:  The Aztecs look to pull away in the race for the conference title, while the Wolf Pack likely need to win at least two of three to remain in the championship hunt.

Fresno State (2-1, 21-15) at UNLV (0-3, 14-21)
Friday, 6 pm PDT
Saturday, 1 pm PDT
Sunday, 1 pm PDT

Outlook:  Winning the series will be important for Fresno State if the Bulldogs want to make a serious run at the Mountain West title in their first year in the conference, while the Rebels are hoping to put last weekend behind them.

Boise State (0-0, 16-17-1) at New Mexico (0-3, 16-23)
Friday, 3 pm MDT
Saturday, 6 pm MDT
Sunday, noon MDT

Outlook:  One of these teams is guaranteed to get its first two wins of the season.  New Mexico knows it probably should have won at least one last weekend in San Diego, while the Broncos face the first of two straight conference-opening weekends on the road.