Softball weekend matchups to watch
Counting down the top 10 places I'd like to camp out in the bleachers this weekend. (You can catch Winthrop-Radford, UCSB-Long Beach State and Texas A&M-Oklahoma on ESPNU this weekend.)
Winthrop at Radford -- Sunday on ESPNU, 2 p.m. ET
It's a big weekend in the Big South, and it's also a test run for the conference tournament at Radford in three weeks. Both teams have pulled clear of the pack in conference play, with Radford a half-game ahead of Winthrop at 8-1. Considering the teams had combined for 77 home runs in 69 games entering their nonleague games Wednesday, offense should rule.
UC Santa Barbara at Long Beach State -- Saturday on ESPNU, 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET
No conference tournament, so no second chances in the Big West. That means must-win time at least for Santa Barbara, which doesn't have the RPI to bank on for at-large consideration in the NCAA tournament and is already two and a half games behind Fullerton and Cal Poly at the top of the standings. The Gauchos have proven they can be a pest, beating UCLA, Nevada, Oregon, Kansas, NC State already, in addition to a nonleague win against Long Beach State in which both sides tried not to tip their hands for later in the season. Can they be predators?
Texas A&M at Oklahoma -- Sunday on ESPNU, 10 p.m. ET
It's not quite the titanic clash these two typically stage in the Big 12, but it's a chance for both sides to stay afloat. The Aggies are 13-7 since taking two of three from Arizona at the end of February, but after three run-rule losses in their past six games, this series and Wednesday's game against Baylor are chances to show they can still be a factor in May.
Michigan at Illinois
Northwestern's first conference loss last week opened the door a crack for Michigan, which also trails one-loss Ohio State in the standings but still has a doubleheader in Ann Arbor left against the Buckeyes. Before worrying about that, the Wolverines face their toughest remaining road trip. Entering Wednesday's doubleheader at home against Indiana, the Illini were averaging 8.7 runs per game in seven home games.
Sacramento State at Portland State
You get your money's worth with the weekly PCSC double doubleheaders, and the time investment is worth it in Portland. Sacramento State hosts Loyola Marymount next weekend in the series many expected to settle the title. But despite losing last season's ace, Mandy Hill, the Vikings are in the mix under first-year coach Tobin Echo-Hawk. Senior Jamee Rauch is 13-for-27 with three walks in eight conference games.
Southern Illinois at Creighton
Wednesday's doubleheader against third-place Drake will determine the margin, but Creighton will hold a Missouri Valley Conference lead of some sort when the second-place Salukis visit Omaha this weekend. Creighton swept all three games last season in Carbondale, and revenge won't be easy if it means going through Bluejays ace Tara Oltman.
Arkansas at Alabama
The SEC regular-season title is done and dusted for Florida, and the prospect of playing a super regional on the road is suddenly at least a possibility, albeit remote, for former co-favorite Alabama. That it faces a team this weekend with more home runs and a better slugging percentage in league play -- and that team isn't Florida -- underscores part of the reason why. A lot of teams would be content with Alabama's .426 slugging percentage in the SEC (.488 overall), but a lot of teams didn't return almost the entire lineup this season from a team that hit 43 home runs and slugged .598 in the SEC last season.
Florida at LSU
One thing Alabama has that no other SEC team has since 2007 is a win against Florida. And if that's to change before this year's conference tournament, the Gators' final road trip of the regular season would seem a likely time. LSU is coming off one of its most prolific three-game stretches of the season, but Cody Trahan's pitching will be equally important. When the Tigers came close against the Gators last season, Trahan didn't walk anyone in six innings, losing 2-0 on a pair of unearned runs.
California at Arizona
The Bay Area schools will also swap places in Arizona for single games Friday. No team had a more important weekend last time out than Cal, which took both home games in a three-game home-and-home series with Stanford. That came on the heels of seven losses in 12 games. With their next six league games at home, there's time, but at least one win in Tucson would be a big boost toward securing an NCAA tournament seed.
Stanford at Arizona State
They played only the standard three games last season, but that was still enough to produce 30 innings of softball. It was also a span that saw the Cardinal produce just two runs. Freshman Hillary Bach is Arizona State's ace now, and Megan Elliott hasn't pitched since allowing five earned runs on three hits, three walks and three wild pitches in less than two innings against UNLV on April 7. But Elliott was part of that pitching domination last season, going 9 1/3 scoreless innings in one of the wins against Stanford.