Originally Published: March 21, 2012

Games to watch this weekend

By Graham Hays

The start of spring can only mean it's time for Pac-12 softball. Or is it the other way around? The NCAA women's basketball tournament necessitates a condensed notebook this week, but the opening weekend of conference play -- a rivalry weekend at that -- in softball's power broker merits a quick look at how we got here and what's ahead (UCLA opens its league schedule next week).

California (25-1) at Stanford (25-3)
Stanford Cal California's early MVP: Valerie Arioto, P/1B
The easiest call on the list. In 66 innings in the circle, Arioto has given up a total of 40 hits and 14 walks. In 97 plate appearances as a hitter, she has totaled 25 hits, including 10 home runs, and 37 walks. That's 54 people reaching base against her, and 63 times she has reached base (including one hit-by-pitch). If teams can't reach base against her and can't keep her off base, case closed.

Stanford's early MVP: Teagan Gerhart, P
Is any Stanford player really more valuable than reigning USA Softball Player of the Year Ashley Hansen? Not likely. But for work done so far this season, the honor has to go to Gerhart. She's five wins clear of any other pitcher in the conference and has walked just 18 batters in 124 2/3 innings, ensuring minimal damage on the home runs she has a tendency to allow.

The series: It took until the middle of March for California to lose its bid for a perfect season, so even though it cost the Bears the No. 1 spot in one of the polls, let's not make too much of an extra-inning loss on the road against a very good Hawaii team. Cal took two of three at home from Stanford last season en route to a second-place finish, but it scored just seven runs in those games. That marked the team's lowest output in a Pac-12 series it won and its second lowest in any Pac-12 series.

Arizona (18-4) at Arizona State (28-3)
ASU Arizona Arizona's early MVP: Shelby Pendley, SS
Brigette Del Ponte has been terrific yet again, entering conference play with a .506 on-base percentage; Jessica Spigner has been a major asset in the middle of the lineup; and Kenzie Fowler is still waiting for her first loss. But given the uncertainty Arizona had at shortstop, plus the uncertainty about Pendley's initial availability after a knee injury, a freshman with a .902 slugging percentage and 31 RBIs playing a vital defensive position is tough to pass up for consideration here.

Arizona State's early MVP: Katelyn Boyd, SS
Senior Hillary Bach (13-0, 0.57 ERA) deserves strong consideration as presumptive ace Dallas Escobedo works through some issues with the long ball (10 home runs in 73 2/3 innings, including two in last weekend's loss against Louisiana-Lafayette). But with a 1.630 OPS, 13 home runs, 16 stolen bases and just two errors in the field, Boyd is living up to her reputation after finishing last season as a finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year.

The series: Since about the time Clint Myers arrived in Tempe to take over the Sun Devils, this has been as good a series as there is in softball -- including that one the Wildcats have with the team in Westwood, Calif. Arizona State's sweep last season came when Arizona was without Fowler. Will this year's edition bring two Fowler versus Escobedo games?

Utah (19-5) at Washington (29-1)
UW Utah Utah's early MVP: Generra Nielson, P
This is a closer call than Nielson's numbers suggest, mostly because Whitney Holm (.478 BA, 8 HR, 28 RBIs, 1.431 OPS) is crushing the ball for the Utes. But Nielson is 14-4 with a 1.07 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 111 2/3 innings. She earned Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week honors last week for her efforts, which included a 16-strikeout no-hitter against Colgate.

Washington's early MVP: Kaitlin Inglesby, P/DP
The showdown against Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts in the Judi Garman Classic didn't come to pass, but Inglesby is still making a case as one of the best dual-threat players in the country. She's 15-0 with a 1.19 ERA in the circle (she actually has more wins than starts), and she's slugging .753 with just four strikeouts at the plate.

The series: It's time to find out a little more about Nielson. Utah can't be faulted for loading up its nonconference schedule with early wins before diving in the deep end for its first Pac-12 season, but the best win to date is probably a 6-1 win at New Mexico. Going to Seattle to face a team that just rolled through UC Davis, Iowa, Notre Dame and DePaul by a combined 34-7 margin in the Judi Garman Classic is a different beast.

Oregon (18-4) at Oregon State (21-7)
OSU Oregon Oregon's early MVP: Jessica Moore, P
Oregon's ace has enjoyed the luxury of run support early on, but she's throwing like someone ready for the rigors of Pac-12 play. She has allowed just four home runs in 108 innings. Throw in an improved walk rate, and she's giving herself some security against big innings and giving her team a chance to make up for mistakes in the field.

Oregon State's early MVP: Dani Gilmore, OF
A player's first Pac-12 season is often an uphill climb, but Gilmore carries a lot momentum with her as she hits the incline. The highly touted freshman is Oregon State's leader in OPS, showing impressive plate discipline to go with power and speed. A team that averaged 4.0 runs per game out of league play last season averaged 6.4 this year.

The series: It's the home opener for Oregon State, and it's a series the Beavers likely need to win if they want a shot at the NCAA tournament. A must-win this early? Well, the rest of the home conference schedule is Arizona State, Washington and California. Getting at least two wins against the in-state rival and picking off a game here and there the rest of the way might be enough. Oregon swept three games at home last season.

Here are some non-Pac-12 games to watch:

Bama DePaul

DePaul at Alabama: Coming on the heels of a midweek doubleheader against Tennessee, Alabama steps out of conference for one of the final times with two games against DePaul and two against Longwood.The Judi Garman wasn't kind to the Blue Demons, who lost run-rule decisions to Oklahoma and Washington (they did earn a 4-0 win against Fresno State). The Blue Demons have wins this season against SEC foes LSU and Mississippi State, but winning in Tuscaloosa will be a challenge of a different stripe.


Florida State at Virginia: It's an early showdown for first place in the ACC. Both teams enter 3-0 in the league, but Virginia has lost momentum since a surprise three-game sweep at Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers lost all four of their games in the Judi Garman Classic last weekend, scoring just six runs in all. For their part, the Seminoles have struggled to produce runs in games against top pitchers, most recently a 2-1 loss against in-state rival South Florida and Sara Nevins last weekend, but they are 4-2 against Cavaliers ace Melanie Mitchell the past two seasons.

Auburn UK

Kentucky at Auburn: Kentucky woke up Wednesday as the only team in the SEC with a losing record on the season (12-15) and coming off a 20-7 loss at home against UAB. A series win at Auburn might not cure all that ails the Wildcats, but it would go a long way toward suggesting they can still be the factor in conference most expected before the season. But after picking off wins at LSU and at Georgia, Auburn has a chance to show it has supplanted Kentucky as the outsider on the rise in the league by taking care of business at home in a mid-table matchup.

A&M Missouri

Missouri at Texas A&M: The future SEC rivals meet as Big 12 foes for the final time. Texas A&M gets both Missouri and Oklahoma at home this season, with a series at Texas the lone road test among the top league contenders. Aggies ace Mel Dumezich enters on a roll; she held her own in a 3-0 loss against then-No. 1 California in Hawaii and set a career high with 14 strikeouts in a win against the host Rainbow Wahine, no easy feat off the mainland. But Missouri takes top honors when it comes to pitching rolls. The Tigers opened their Big 12 schedule with three shutouts against Kansas, running their scoreless streak to seven consecutive games. They've allowed three runs in their past 14 games.

Baylor OU

Oklahoma at Baylor: Fresh off career win No. 1,000 last weekend, Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso leads her team into its Big 12 opener, a series that looked like one of the gems of the college season until Baylor ace Whitney Canion went down with a season-ending injury. Baylor coach Glenn Moore is too good at what he does to let his team drift out of the picture entirely, and it's actually the offense, not the pitching, that has had a tough time of late. But beating Keilani Ricketts is a tall order without Canion.


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