Friday, April 29, 2016

Mountain West title, NCAA automatic bid could be decided this weekend

The Mountain West regular-season title and the NCAA automatic bid that goes along with it could be decided as early as Sunday.

It would be the earliest the conference champion has ever been crowned in Mountain West play, since there are still two full weekends of action left after this one.  No. 20 Fresno State (15-0 MW, 34-9-1 overall) currently holds a 4-game lead over second-place San Jose State (11-4, 22-21) in the race for the MW title.  Those two meet in San Jose for three games Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with all three starting at noon.

The 4-game lead for the Bulldogs is the biggest for any softball team in Mountain West history at this point in the season and no team has won the MW title by more than four games in history.  In fact, only one team has ever won the regular-season MW championship by four games.  That team:  the 2007 BYU Cougars, who share a lot of similarities to this 2016 Fresno State team currently in first place.

Like the Bulldogs, the 2007 BYU team had a 16-game winning streak in late April.  That Cougars team was 15-1 at home during the regular season.  Fresno State's current home record:  the same -- 15-1.

Coach Trisha Ford's team has swept eight consecutive 3-game conference series, spanning two seasons, and won 25 Mountain West games in a row.  If the Bulldogs should sweep a ninth straight series by winning all three games in San Jose this weekend, the conference championship and a 32nd all-time trip to the NCAA Tournament for the Bulldogs is guaranteed, regardless of what happens in the final two weekends of the season.

Claiming the series by two games to one would move Fresno State to the brink of a conference title, reducing their magic number to one.  With two victories this weekend, the Bulldogs would need just one win, or one Spartans loss, over the final two weekends of play (May 6-8, and May 12-14) to claim the crown.

San Jose State, meanwhile, must sweep the 3-game series in order to move one game back in conference play.  And sweeping the Bulldogs would be a mighty task.  Not only has Fresno State never been swept in Mountain West play, the Bulldogs have been swept in a 3-game conference series just one time in 34 years of competing in NCAA Division I softball.

History is on the Bulldogs' side as well.  Fresno State has dominated San Jose State over the years, leading the all-time series 84-12.  In games played in San Jose, the Bulldogs have a commanding 38-8 edge.  And this year's team has consistently found ways to win, even in games where they trailed big or late in games.

Fresno State is the lone Mountain West team, and one of the few in the nation, to have a winning record when trailing late.  The Bulldogs are 9-7 in games where they trail entering the fifth inning.  And if a team gets behind Fresno State early, forget it.  The Bulldogs are 20-0 when leading entering the fourth inning.  Simply put, they can come back against you, but no one has been able to come back against them.

In conference play, the Bulldogs have that deadly combination of leading the league in both hitting and pitching.  With only nine games remaining, Fresno State remains on pace to break the Mountain West record for best team batting average and total number of hits by a team in conference play.  The Bulldogs are hitting .391 as a team (the record is .379, set by BYU in 2009) and are averaging nearly 12 hits per game.  Fresno State also has the league's leader by a wide margin in pitching wins (Jill Compton is 11-0), and the leader in ERA in conference play (Kamalani Dung, at 2.80).  Dung is unbeaten at 7-0 this season.

San Jose State counters with an offense that is batting .378, which ranks second in conference play.  The Spartans and Bulldogs lead the rest of the conference by more than 60 points in team batting average in league play.  And while Fresno State's team ERA in Mountain West play ranks No. 1 at 3.29, San Jose State is third at 4.40.

Normally one would think home field advantage would play a role this weekend, but surprisingly Fresno State hits better -- and, in some cases -- much better on the road.  With a northwest wind almost always blowing in from centerfield at home at Margie Wright Diamond, Bulldog hitters tend to hit a lot of fly outs at home.  And those same hits often turn into home runs and doubles away from home.  No team in the Mountain West has such a hitting discrepancy home and away.  While Fresno State has hit only eight home runs at home this season, the Bulldogs have slugged 37 homers out of the park away from Margie Wright Diamond.  Ford's team needs six home runs to tie the school record of 51 home runs in a season.  Look for that mark to be broken, as the Bulldogs have nine games -- plus likely postseason games -- remaining.