Thursday, April 30, 2015

Crunch time is here as the calendar turns to May


Well, the calendar is turning to May.  It's the next-to-last weekend of the regular season in Mountain West softball this week and there is a chance we could be down to two teams left in the race for the conference title by Sunday.  In fact, there's even an outside chance the title could be decided this weekend, but it's unlikely.

It's senior weekend in San Jose, Fort Collins and Logan.  Mountain West leader Fresno State is idle in conference play this weekend but takes a trip up Highway 99 to Stockton to face a Pacific Tigers team that has won four of its last five games.

Both Nevada and Utah State have a chance to play spoiler in the race for the MW title this week.  Nevada, currently tied for last place, may need at least one win this week to avoid finishing alone at the bottom.  The Wolf Pack are already assured of a losing record in conference play for the fifth time in six seasons and have lost 10 of their last 12 games overall.

Nevada will face a San Jose State team that has lost back-to-back games, including a surprising home loss to Santa Clara on Tuesday.  SJSU is 2 1/2 games out of first place and no longer controls its own destiny in the race for the MW title.

Utah State's senior weekend will come against 3-time defending conference champion San Diego State, which faces long odds of becoming a 4-time champion.  One win by Utah State this weekend would mean SDSU can no longer secure the Mountain West's automatic NCAA tournament bid.

The Aggies appear to be a far different team than they were a few weeks ago when talented pitcher Noelle Johnson was healthy.  After leaving with an apparent injury (we're just guessing ... no one seems to be talking, and nothing has been made official as far as we know) after one inning of game two of Utah State's series against San Jose State, the Aggies haven't been the same.  Johnson has not played or pitched in a game since April 18.  If Johnson is not in the pitching rotation again this weekend, it bears noting that USU's three other pitchers carry a combined 2-19 record and ERA over 9.00.  That probably won't cut it against San Diego State.

Utah State is on an 8-game losing streak and has been outscored 55-16 in the process.  USU must defeat SDSU this weekend to avoid that streak reaching 11, which would be its longest since a disastrous 20-game losing streak to begin the 2012 season.  An 11-game slide would also mark the third time in two seasons under coach Steve Johnson that USU has had a double-digit losing streak.  Twice last year, the Aggies lost 10 in a row.  They opened the 2015 season by losing seven straight.

A win by Utah State this weekend would be huge for a team that can still finish with a winning record in conference play.  Meanwhile, San Diego State must sweep in order to have any chance at a fourth straight Mountain West title, and even then, it would require a great deal of outside help from UNLV, Nevada and New Mexico down the stretch.

It's senior weekend in Fort Collins where Colorado State will try to get back on the winning track against UNLV.  The Rams have been a major disappointment this season, losing eight of their nine home conference games so far and failing to win a single MW home series.  The Rebels, meanwhile, are 9-9 and in the middle of the pack at 23-26 overall.

Boise State visits New Mexico and this series matches a pair of teams going in opposite directions.  While BSU has the most losses in a single season in its brief program history, coach Erica Beach has New Mexico in fourth place in the Mountain West during a season where the Lobos were predicted to finish last.  UNM has won both of its home conference series so far this year and will look for a third straight.

Fresno State has a big test in its Highway 99 rivalry series with Pacific in Stockton, where the Bulldogs and Tigers meet in a single game Saturday at 2 pm.  This one could match the reigning 4-time Mountain West Pitcher of the Week -- the Bulldogs' Jill Compton -- against the current West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Week, Dani Bonnett of UOP.  The two faced each other earlier this season when Fresno State won a 1-0 squeaker.  The Bulldogs are riding a 7-game winning streak, and a victory at Pacific (which already has a win over nationally-ranked Baylor this season) could be huge in terms of NCAA at-large selection if it comes to that.