Hot bats, strong pitching has UA softball ranked No. 5

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                </div>  Forty games.  That’s how many the University of Arizona softball team won last year on the way to advancing to the program’s 11th Super Regional in 12 years. Twenty […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Forty games.  That’s how many the University of Arizona softball team won last year on the way to advancing to the program’s 11th Super Regional in 12 years.

Twenty games.  That’s the total wins so far this season.  The Wildcats have already pocketed half of last year’s total wins, just four weeks into the 2017 season and still a week away from beginning Pac-12 play.

Arizona’s 20-1 record has moved the Cats into a No. 5 national ranking (USA Today/NFCA Top 25), the first top-five ranking since about the same time in the 2011 schedule, the year they finished 43-18 in the conference that was still called the Pac-10.

The Cats are just beginning a grueling part of the schedule that includes 11 straight road games, the first eight games in California squeezed into a five-day span.  Then they head to Oregon for the first three conference contests, against Oregon State.

So far, so good.  They beat Cal State Northridge, 10-1, yesterday morning and came back later in the day to knock off Quinnipiac, 7-1.  They have a double-header today and a twin bill Sunday to close out their participation in the CSUN/LMU Tournament at Northridge.

But two days later, the rubber meets the road.  On Tuesday, they take on No. 9 Oklahoma, the defending national champion.  That game will be a good litmus test before getting into the conference schedule.

So far the Cats are putting up big numbers in non-conference play.  Coming into this weekend, they had outscored their opponents, 154-20, and are averaging a little more than eight runs a game – which ranks sixth nationally – and have collected 172 hits.  Their 23 home runs are more than the total runs of the teams they have played.

The home-run barrage has been lead by Katiyana Mauga, who leads the team with seven.  That’s 74 career round trips for the senior third baseman, just 13 away from the school record set by former catcher Stacie Chambers during the opening regional game at the close of her redshirt senior season in 2011.

Based on her past performance, Mauga is on pace to reach the mark set by Chambers, a crowd favorite that played locally at Cactus High School in Glendale, where she was a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year.  Mauga hit 20 or more home runs in each of her first three years in the Wildcat program, topped by a total of 29 in her sophomore season.

But you don’t make it to the Women’s College World Series, the specifically-stated goal for each Wildcat team, without pitching.  This year, they again appear to have the power in the circle to make a run at getting back to the WCWS for the first time since 2010.  The Cats, who own eight NCAA titles, are looking for their 23rd World Series appearance  in the storied history of the program.

Pitching appears to be returning to a place of prominence in the Arizona program.  After a combined ERA just slightly above 3.50 for a four-year period ending in 2015, the 2016 pitching staff posted a combined 2.67 ERA, which was second-best among Pac-12 programs.

This year’s three-headed monster on the mound – Nancy Bowling, Danielle O’Toole, and Taylor McQuillin – have a sizzling 0.94 combined ERA.  All three were on staff last year, which helps explain the Cats’ preseason top-10 ranking.  Bowling and O’Toole are redshirt seniors and McQuillin is a sophomore who is expected to be the ace in coming years.  In the second game of the season, against Northridge, McQuillin struck out 17 batters.

O’Toole is getting the lion’s share of time  on the rubber this season, posting a 10-1 record and 0.41 ERA – which is tops in the conference. Bowling and McQuillin are both 4-0.

(*Update:  In the first game after this article was posted, Michelle Floyd got her first start of the season and pitched just the ninth perfect game in UofA history and the first since 2010.  The Wildcats opened the game against Hartford with four home runs in the first inning and cruised to an 18-0 victory, eventually ending the five-inning game with 15 total  hits.)

Arizona has eight seniors on its roster this season, providing the leadership necessary when you’ve just added seven freshmen – even though those rookies made up a recruiting class ranked sixth in the nation by FloSoftball.

Interestingly, the last time Arizona had that many seniors on board was 2001.  They won a national title that year.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)