Pac-12 favorites Arizona and Washington show their vulnerable sides, forced to play Game 3s
The Pac-12 might yet produce half the Women's College World Series field for the first time since 2006, long enough ago that it wasn't even the Pac-12 at the time, but it won't do it the easy way.
A win away from the World Series and with leads in hand to get there, No. 2 Arizona and No. 6 Washington will instead still have work to do Sunday after losses Saturday against No. 15 Baylor and No. 11 Utah, respectively (although, at least in the latter case, the conference can't lose).
An inning away from the same predicament, No. 3 Oregon is instead packing for Oklahoma City.
Which suggests Ducks catcher Gwen Svekis might have a future as a sports analyst, if she wants it.
Svekis made an interesting claim after Friday's win against Kentucky, one that proved prophetic in the next day's 6-5 comeback clincher. She acknowledged Oregon's dip in home run production this season, the current total roughly half of what it was in recent seasons. She then said the team was better for it because, essentially, it took away its excuses. The rest of the lineup couldn't wait for a slugger to save the day with one swing. The result was a more nimble lineup, one that she said would "scratch and claw" for runs with two outs or late in games.
That is a difficult hypothesis to confirm statistically. With the team slugging percentage at its lowest ebb in years, Oregon is scoring significantly fewer runs this season, roughly one fewer per game compared to the other seasons of which Svekis has firsthand knowledge. The more runs you score, all else being equal, the more likely you are to win games.
Except that at 52-6, Oregon isn't doing a lot of losing.
Except that there were the Ducks, down 5-2 entering the seventh inning of Saturday's game, turning four singles, a walk, an error and some aggressive base running into a lead. They didn't have an extra-base hit in the game, let alone the game-deciding rally. In the most critical moment of the season, it was almost the exact scenario Svekis described a day earlier.
Context matters, too. Oregon is scoring fewer runs this season, but the same is true of the entire conference. And not for lack of quality, given the representation we're already guaranteed to see in Oklahoma City. Pitching is better. Runs are harder to come by. With the second-best on-base percentage among Pac-12 teams and nearly twice as many stolen bases as any other team in the league, the Ducks are getting their share.
Maybe Oregon, which twice saw far more prolific slugging teams stymied in low-scoring, super regional upsets in recent seasons, found something that will suit the stage in Oklahoma City better. It worked out pretty well in the seventh inning Saturday. Just as someone predicted.
There were no such late rallies for Arizona and Washington, and now both higher seeds enter super regional finales with some sense of vulnerability in the circle.
The pitcher Washington has leaned on heavily but whom Utah has seen for 20 2/3 innings since May 11, Taran Alvelo, gave up five hits and seven runs, albeit only three earned, in fewer than three innings. The Huskies, with a lineup that looks more intimidating by the day, have done even more damage to Utah pitching in the recent meetings, but does another slugfest await?
Even Arizona's Danielle O'Toole wasn't immune Saturday. One of the best in the nation all season, O'Toole entered the game against Baylor in relief but gave up four hits, three runs and the lead in less than an inning. The workload, 27 pitches, shouldn't be an issue for Sunday, but the rough outing will test the mental maturity that is among the first traits Arizona coach Mike Candrea usually cites for her success.